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Open market on hold, but WCWGA still optimistic

“Whether it’s a few months or a few years, certainly we hope it’s the shorter.”

– Kevin Bender

The open barley and wheat markets the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) has pushed long and hard for is on hold, but its new president is certain it will come someday.

“We had hoped it would be here already and it’s not,” Olds, Alta., farmer Kevin Bender said in an interview last week following the WCWGA’s 39th annual meeting in Winnipeg.

The conference theme was “On the verge…” – an allusion to the open market WCWGA members no doubt hoped would be a reality by now, given it was promised in the federal election the Conservatives won three years ago.

“It looks like it’s going to be a little slower proceeding now with the recent happenings in Ottawa, but I still believe it will happen,” Bender said. “Whether it’s a few months or a few years, certainly we hope it’s the shorter.”

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told a Saskatchewan radio station last month the Conservative government has no immediate plans to introduce legislation to strip the Canadian Wheat Board of its single-desk marketing powers.

“It’s off the table for the short term,” Ritz said, according to a transcript of the interview, published in the Western Producer. “We’ll have to assess that as we move forward.”

Ritz may have been stating the obvious given the government’s minority status and public opinion demanding parliamentarians put aside partisan bickering to focus on the economic crisis. However, it’s the first time Ritz has showed any sign of backing off. It didn’t help that last month four of the five farmers elected as wheat board directors support retaining the CWB’s marketing monopoly for wheat and barley.

When asked about the results, Ritz replied: “Well, farmers have spoken… We recognize that, at this time and place, this is what farmers are asking for and we’ll certainly work to make sure that the board delivers for them in the best way possible.”

The Conservatives encountered no end of stumbling blocks as they attempted implement an open market, including a court ruling that overturned a cabinet order to do just that for barley. Even after firing the CWB’s president and CEO and replacing government-appointed directors, Ottawa still couldn’t control the CWB’s board. And without a majority in Parliament, any legislation to change the CWB’s mandate was then, and still is, likely to fail.

“It’s inevitable”

Despite the setbacks, Bender took solace in the speech Neal Wandel delivered to the WCWGA Jan. 8.

“It’s my observation that it’s (an open market) inevitable,” said the chair of CBH Group, an Australian farmer-owned grain-handling and marketing co-operative. “It might come this year, it might come next year. Deregulation will come to you sooner or later. We had to wait 20 years but it did come (in Australia).”

The Australian Wheat Board (AWB) lost its wheat-marketing monopoly last year – fallout from a kickback scandal involving sales to Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Wandel said it’s too early to pass final judgment on deregulation. It has been challenging for some farmers, caused some logistical problems for exports and sparked a “mini-boom” in demand for marketing consultants.

“My personal view is that growers are far better off as a result of increased choice and competition,” he said, especially in Western Australia where his co-op can assist farmers in the transition to an open market.

CWB president and CEO Ian White disagrees with countryman Wandel. Asked if in general more farmers are better served by the single desk than an open market, White said: “My view at the present time would be that would be the case.”

White, who started with the CWB in April 2008, said he thinks the CWB is doing a “pretty good job.” There’s not much he can do, he said, to win over farmers who are ideologically opposed to the CWB’s single desk, but he vowed to improve marketing and service to win over others. [email protected]

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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