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Editorial: Hung out to dry

It’s a tall order trying to obey rules when you don’t know what they are, but that’s exactly the situation some Manitoba farmers are facing as they try to preserve this year’s weather-damaged crop.

The German novelist Franz Kafka captured this nicely in his 1925 novel The Trial, where the protagonist, one Josef K. is arrested and prosecuted by an inaccessible authority that either can’t or won’t reveal the nature of his crime to either him, or the reader.

It’s a theme that’s resonated so strongly through the decades that we now have a word that sums it up nicely: Kafkaesque.

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It might seem like a stretch for a farm newspaper in Manitoba to be referencing a long-deceased Bohemian novelist who penned his masterpiece at the start of the First World War. But as we’ve attempted to understand and report on the issue of grain dryer regulations here in Manitoba, that word just keeps coming to mind.

Manitoba farmers claim that it’s all but impossible to buy and set up a used grain dryer in a timely and economical fashion. If it can be done at all, it frequently costs as much as buying the dryer itself. The situation has got so out of hand that companies based here in Manitoba won’t sell a used dryer to Manitoba farmers that they’ll happily sell across the line in Saskatchewan.

As you read last week on the front page of the Co-operator our Alexis Stockford spent weeks attempting to gather information on just what the rules were here in the Keystone province — without much success.

She first contacted the province — repeatedly — asking to speak to an inspector with the Office of the Fire Commissioner. Her questions were straightforward and mainly consisted of wanting to know why things seemed to play out differently here for producers looking to set up a dryer and what, if any, were the factual differences in regulations between Manitoba and other provinces.

After a number of back-and-forth communications she was told there wasn’t an inspector available; she was given a general statement that inspectors were “working to get dryers approved as fast as possible.”

The Office of the Fire Commissioner referred her to its online grain dryer guide on its website, but wouldn’t go beyond generalities to speak to her about what the hurdles were that apparently keep tripping up farmers here in Manitoba. That document is just a few pages long and contains little detail.

Having no luck with the regulatory agency, the next step was on to the political arm of government, in the form of the minister responsible for the Office of the Fire Commissioner. That is Minister of Infrastructure Blaine Pedersen who initially seemed willing to speak to our reporter.

In the end however, his office forwarded the same sort of general statement that had come from the Office of the Fire Commissioner, but with the added detail that there was some move to reconsider regulations in light of the contrast between Manitoba and neighbouring provinces.

So that’s the situation in which Manitoba grain producers now find themselves. They know there are rules and they can, in the vaguest possible terms, find out notionally what those regulations are. But they can’t find out what the main issues are and they’re finding the application of those rules is arcane, opaque and frequently costly.

This stunning lack of clarity has hampered their ability to deal with this fall’s tough harvest and has a very real financial cost to their operations. Their inability to buy a used grain dryer can cost them tens of thousands of dollars more than their colleagues in Saskatchewan.

There are anecdotes circulating about farmers with land on both sides of the provincial boundary who, out of frustration, hauled their new dryer a couple of miles down the road to Saskatchewan and got it set up hassle free.

This bureaucratic nightmare has been ongoing for years and has survived two provincial governments to date, so it appears to enjoy bipartisan support down at the Legislature building. And it must be fixed and fixed as quickly as possible.

Nobody is arguing there shouldn’t be rules about how dryers are set up. Safety is important and the province’s agriculture sector is working hard to build a “culture of safety.” But the rules should be clearcut and accessible. Right now they’re not.

When the Pallister government came to office, it promised red tape reduction. This is a prime candidate.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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