Probably the single word that best expresses the fundamental nature of the agriculture sector when it comes to policy is ‘fractious.’
Looking at the synonyms for this word is a revealing exercise: stubborn, irritable, testy, unruly, disorderly, ornery, scrappy, touchy, and my personal favourite, indomitable.
It’s a sector that loves a good fight and, by golly, over the decades there has been more than a few of them.
From the Crow rate to supply management and all stops in between, there’s been no shortage of cherished ideals and strong opinions down on the farm.
In part, that’s probably an expression of the sector’s independence. While other areas of the economy have concentrated, amalgamated and corporatized, agriculture, at the grassroots level, continues to largely be family-owned businesses.
Free of the concern over the career-limiting impacts of public statements, farmers, unlike their cousins in the business world, still enjoy the freedom of speaking their minds.
Often that’s a good thing, but it has also brewed up more than a few tempests. There have been topics that, for decades, it was accepted you didn’t bring up unless you were ready to have a good-old-fashioned verbal donnybrook.
Probably the earliest I recall is the Crow rate, which some farmers viewed as their bulwark against predatory railways and others as a Marxist roadblock that stifled investment.
The all-time champion of these issues was of course the Canadian Wheat Board and its single-desk marketing powers. I know personally of two small-town bar brawls and one broken engagement that came out of that policy difference.
In localized areas, large-scale pork production has split more than one community right down the middle as well.
Back home, about 15 years ago, one large barn was proposed, drawing both proponents and opponents. A few months into this debate one of the annual community events for the rural district rolled around, and everyone turned out as usual.
I wasn’t there, but it’s been recounted to me that everyone was bending over backwards to ignore the elephant in the room, mentally reminding themselves that they’d have to be neighbours long after the issue was settled one way or the other.
Into this waded one of the local wags setting himself down at a table and inquiring blandly, “Anyone seen any dead pigs floating down the creek yet?”
To the great credit of the assembled, the question was said to have passed without remark, unless one counts a meaningful silence.
All of these past disputes only serve to highlight just how remarkable the passage — and prolonged period of lobbying and horse-trading leading up to that — of the new transportation bill has been.
About 10 years ago, I found myself in Ottawa early in the new year, attending the annual meeting of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Association. That same day, just down the street from the hotel, a coalition of shippers including members of the grain industry, were holding a press conference highlighting their goals in the impending review of transportation regulation, which I slipped out to take in.
Greg Cherewyck of Pulse Canada was one of the most active participants and it was there he laid out the broad strokes of the grand coalition that would lead the charge from the shippers’ side.
Shippers had correctly identified that they too often got bogged down in petty differences and lost wars because they were too busy fighting internal battles. This time they vowed they’d pick key goals they could all agree upon and build a script around that, then faithfully stick to that script. It was as if they’d taken Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment to his fellow colonialist rebels to heart: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
To an observer familiar with the dynamics of the sector, it seemed like mission impossible. It would only be a matter of time before someone, somewhere, broke ranks.
This past week, however, the naysayers (myself included) were silenced with the passage of Bill C-49 after a period of back-and-forth wrangling between Commons and Senate.
What the grain industry — and other bulk shippers — got in the end was a virtual wish list that covered many of the intractable and recurring concerns.
Nobody is saying the war is over, but they are celebrating a major victory. The next hurdles will be firmly in the “God and the devil are in the details” territory, and the weary grain industry is going to have to see it in action to believe it.
Regardless whether a new page has been turned in grain transportation, however, we should all be celebrating another new era.
Perhaps agriculture has finally turned the page on detrimental internal squabbles.