Bob Hopley, a farmer from Oak River, and the brains behind the creation of the Net Income Stabilization Account (NISA), which evolved into today’s AgriInvest risk management program, passed away Aug. 25 at the age of 87.
“Bob had a mind second to none in terms of figuring things out,” his longtime friend and veteran farm policy wonk Owen McAuley said in an interview Sept. 7.
Hopley was a visionary, McAuley told mourners at Hopley’s funeral Aug. 31.
“It came out of the mind of an Oak River farmer from his kitchen table,” McAuley said. “Think about that for a minute. It’s amazing. He convinced the whole country that this is the right process.”
Coming up with NISA — a program that encouraged farmers, through government incentives, to save money during good times for a rainy day — and his many other accomplishments saw Hopley inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2015 (see sidebar).
“Bob originated the concept of the National Income Stabilization Account (NISA),” Hopley’s Hall of Fame inscription read. “He was asked to chair a task force on his stabilization plan and move it forward to both levels of government, national farm organizations and key stakeholders. NISA became the centrepiece of Canadian agricultural stabilization policy and was supported by all 10 provinces. By 2004 over $3.4 billion had been placed in NISA accounts by Canadian farmers and both levels of government. This was the ultimate validation of Bob’s program by the Canadian farming community. The NISA program has evolved over the years, but Bob’s concept is still embedded within Canada’s National Agricultural Policy framework. The AgriInvest program is NISA’s current reincarnation.
“His contributions have had, and will continue to have, significant beneficial impacts on farm families across Canada.”
Hopley fleshed out his plan through Grains 2000, a farmer-run think-tank funded by the federal government. Its job was to develop a better income support program for Canadian farmers.
Several droughts and low grain prices during the 1980s revealed the Western Grain Stabilization Fund, the main government support for grain farmers, was flawed.
“I carried around a front page of the Manitoba Co-operator that reported a farmer south of Winnipeg got 90 bushels to the acre wheat and got a $127,000 payout from the Western Grain Stabilization Fund,” he said. “A farmer at Maple Creek (Sask.) had three years with no crop and he got nothing.
“The people who had no crop were the people who were initiating the payout because their income was near zero and the program was making up for no income, but rewarding the people who had excellent crops. It was just so backwards.”
To better assist struggling farmers the federal government set up several ad hoc programs worth billions.
Despite the largesse, farmers complained of red tape and other problems convincing farmers and Ottawa there had to be a better way.
In addition to NISA, the Gross Revenue Insurance Program (GRIP), was developed to complement NISA, and crop insurance, which already existed.
While crop insurance insures production, GRIP allowed grain farmers to insure gross revenues per acre by insuring prices as well. In combination, farmers could offset drops in production and prices.
NISA allowed farmers to deposit money into a savings account to be used when net income slumped. To encourage farmers to save the government matched a portion of what farmers deposited, based on qualifying net sales. In addition the government paid bonus interest on part of the farmer’s NISA savings.
If a farmer’s gross margin fell below their five-year-average gross margin, or if income from all sources fell below the minimum threshold they would qualify for a NISA withdrawal, but were not obliged to do so.
Initially, NISA critics worried farmers would manipulate the program to trigger payouts to get more government funds. But in a 1989 interview Hopley told this reporter farmers were unlikely to do that because if their net income hadn’t fallen a NISA payout could put them in a higher tax bracket making them worse off financially.
By the late 1990s the federal government complained farmers weren’t withdrawing enough from NISA even though many were lobbying Ottawa for aid.
It was a legitimate concern, McAuley said — one that he and Hopley tried to avoid.
Sometime in the late 1980s, perhaps 1988 — McAuley doesn’t exactly recall — he and Hopley had been negotiating with federal Department of Finance officials for six weeks on how to set up NISA and getting nowhere.
“Everything we brought to the table they just said ‘no,’ but they never came with a concept,” McAuley said.
“So in the sixth week Bob and I went to (then agriculture minister Don) Mazankowski’s office and said, ‘Maz, we’re done. We’ve got better things to do at home than waste our time.’”
Mazankowski said he’d see what he could do.
At the next meeting officials proposed the government match some of farmers’ NISA contributions, plus provide a three per cent interest bonus on part of the NISA account, McAuley said.
“Bob and I looked at each other and Bob said, ‘That’s better than what we’re asking for, we’ll take it,’” McAuley said.
What the two farmers really wanted was for farmer NISA deposits to be tax deductible.
“The Finance Department didn’t want to do that because it had just taken it away from the arts community,” McAuley said.
In the end the Finance Department’s idea encouraged farmers to avoid withdrawing money from NISA, even in tough times. That led the federal government in 2003 to threaten to scrap the program.
“In all sincerity the proposal they (Finance Department) gave us was too good,” McAuley said. “We should’ve been smart enough to see that. It was just too good because what was it, four years later, there was 3-1/2 billion dollars in NISA accounts… and farmers were still saying we need more money. I mean, it was just too good. And they knew that. We just weren’t smart enough at the time to figure that out. We were just happy to get NISA in place. But NISA is still there. It’s called AgriInvest. The concept survives.”
GRIP, on the other hand, didn’t, ending after five years.
“It was too farmer friendly if you want the honest truth… and not government friendly,” McAuley said. “There was potential for big payouts under the GRIP program the way it was structured and the government didn’t like that in the long run. GRIP was probably better off gone for that reason. I mean the liability to the government was immense. If we’d had a crop failure like we did this year GRIP would’ve paid out enormously.”
But McAuley agrees GRIP probably could’ve been modified to reduce government liability. In fact, that’s what happened to the AgriStability program a few years ago. Now most farmers complain it’s of little use.
After decades of trying, farmers and governments have yet to find the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to support programs.
“It’s quite a dilemma for agriculture actually,” McAuley said.
From his kitchen table, to the halls of Parliament
Manitoba farmer Bob Hopley made a difference in farm policy that still lingers
Bob Hopley didn’t just invent NISA (Net Income Stabilization Account), he sold it too.
It was no easy feat. Hopley travelled across Canada 31 times meeting with federal and provincial government ministers and bureaucrats and farmers to make it happen.
“He never took a penny for it or sought recognition for this extraordinary accomplishment,” Hopley’s friend Ray Redfern, president of Redfern Farm Supplies, quoting another Hopley friend, Sid Gordon of Neepawa, told mourners at Hopley’s funeral Aug. 31.
“In every generation a few individuals stand out for what they’ve contributed, and even more so, carried out with quiet humility. Today we honour such a man — Robert William Hopley. I am proud to call him friend and family.”
Hopley had vision and persuaded the country he had a good idea, Owen McAuley, a farmer who worked with Hopley to get NISA implemented, told mourners.
“It kind of shows just the ability of the man, the vision of the man in terms of putting together the whole process demonstrating to the country — to the country — this is correct,” he said. “Not me, not you, not the individual, but the whole country. And that’s pretty amazing for a farmer from Oak River when you think about it. And that’s who Bob Hopley was. And that’s what he did. He was probably the most respected man I knew.
“Governments respected him. Ministers respected him. The senior bureaucracy respected him.”
Hopley chaired and served on numerous boards and committees, including, the Western Manitoba Farm Business Association, Farm Credit Corporation Appeal Board (1974 to 1986), RM of Blanchard Council, Bank of Montreal Agricultural Advisory Panel (1982 to 1984), CBC Advisory Committee for Food and Agriculture, Western Grain Stabilization Advisory Committee, National Safety Net Committee for the Grains 2000 Project and National Management Committee for NISA.
Hopley was made an honorary member of the Manitoba Institute of Agrologists in 1990.