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What’s the message here?

According to Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, ending the wheat board monopoly will mean “the sky will be the limit” for wheat, prompting farmers to plant more acres.

That presumably means a need for more and better varieties, so you might expect that the government would back up its claim by continuing support for public research, which is so far the main source of new wheat and barley varieties.

Apparently not. Last week we learned that Agriculture Canada’s Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg would be closed. The initial impression was that this would not affect programs, since the positions were being transferred to Brandon and Morden. It now appears otherwise — 41 out of about 100 positions in Winnipeg are being eliminated. That clearly means a reduction in the wheat-breeding program.

Even if that were not the case, shutting down the CRC in Winnipeg raises concerns. There’s no question that the facilities are old and need renovation or replacement, and perhaps the work could be done elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s a cruel blow to an institution with such a remarkable history of success in breeding new wheat varieties. That includes its early history when it was known as “The Rust Lab,” producing varieties which saved Prairie agriculture from the devastating rust scourges of the 1940s and 1950s. What better location to put new emphasis on fighting new threats, especially the emerging one of the devastating Ug99 rust strain?

The decision puts an end to an Agriculture Canada proposal for a cereals Centre of Excellence in Winnipeg, housing the breeding program, Canadian Grain Commission, Cigi, the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, University of Manitoba and the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods.

In November when Minister Ritz was promoting changes to the CWB, he said they would “Create new opportunities for (the) Manitoba wheat and barley industry.”

Let’s hope so. Winnipeg now sees more than 300 jobs lost at the Canadian Wheat Board, 100 disappearing or moving from the CRC and the prospect of deep cuts at the Canadian Grain Commission. This follows transfer of many of the AAFC income-stability program positions in Winnipeg to Regina.

Is there some kind of political message here?

Spare a thought

With some exceptions such as farmers who were badly flooded last year, it must be said that at the moment, times in agriculture are not too bad. Those good times are well deserved after some difficult periods when farmers had to turn to government for support.

It will be recalled that during those periods, one of the justifications for asking for help was that it didn’t just benefit farmers — it supported the spinoff benefits to others with jobs related to agriculture.

If during those periods farmers were giving some thought to those whose jobs depended on them, they should now give some thought to those who are either losing some of those same jobs, such as those mentioned earlier. Farmers are not the only ones subject to the whims of the economy, changes in regulation or bad management.

Whatever the reason, it’s become a familiar experience for many in today’s economy. One day, you’re called into a room and handed an envelope. If you’re lucky, you’re given a couple of weeks’ notice and a chance to clean up your cubicle and say goodbye to your colleagues. If you’re not, you are escorted out the door and a box of your stuff is delivered by courier a couple of days later.

You then get to go home and break the news to your family, meanwhile worrying about how you will pay a mortgage, car loan and your kids’ tuition. If you’ve been employed for a few years, you may have a severance package to keep you going for a while. On the other hand, that means you’re in your 50s, looking for a new career in a tight job market, competing with young people who expect a lower salary, and are better looking.

Being transferred isn’t much easier. It isn’t the 1950s anymore, when Dad was the sole breadwinner and he simply accepted the transfer and packed Mom and the kids into the station wagon. Today there are few one-earner households, and Mom is often the one with a higher salary. Finding an equivalent job for a spouse might not be easy in another community, especially smaller ones such as Morden or Brandon, where some of the AAFC positions are being moved.

Some farmers are all too quick to dismiss these employees as “bureaucrats” making an easy living at their expense. In most cases they’re hard-working individuals dedicated to organizations and the farmers they serve, and many are from farms themselves.

Circumstances change, and no one can expect a guaranteed job for life. But they can expect thanks, and some appreciation of the difficulties they face in finding a new source of income for themselves and their families.

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