Reform agribusiness in Northumberland

First published:
June 6, 2001

It seems as seedlings take root in fields across Northumberland, many farmers are already worried they will not be able to survive yet another season. The reasons are as complex as the individual farmers. Soy prices among others grains and oil seeds are plummeting on the Chicago commodity market. Government subsidies in foreign countries are forcing world prices lower and lower, making it nearly impossible to be profitable. Safety net programs are under-funded by the Canadian government.

The long list goes on.

If the problems are complex, the solutions are even more elusive. It is folly to think farmers and policy makers haven’t tried a raft of ideas to make farmer’s lives better. But a recent interview with Senator Jack Wiebe, co-chair of the agriculture committee for the Senate, revealed some interesting thoughts about the current situation.

” I have been actively farming for 42 years. I have now been a senator on Parliament Hill for 12 months. I do not think that I ever have been more frustrated in my life about agriculture than I am now,” he told a senate committee on April 4.

“Every time there has been a problem in agriculture over the last 40 years, succeeding governments have attempted to solve it by throwing money at it. We then debate whether the amount thrown was sufficient,” he said.

It is time everyone – farm organizations, government and the senate, started to look at long-term solutions rather than knee-jerk reactions every time there is a crisis, he said.

There has to be a better way, he argues.

“Governments and farm organizations have to find ways to make better use of
farmland. We need better husbandry of the land and of the parts of the industry into which we are diversifying. We are calling on farmers to diversify, but if they all go into chickpeas, which are currently very profitable, we will have an oversupply and the price will drop,” he told the committee.

The same holds true for livestock. A quota of 1,100 chickens would have been sufficient for a farmer not that long ago, compared to the 1,400 needed today.

Rather than diversifying, farmers stay with unprofitable operations. The cost makes in nearly impossible to make changes, he said.

Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief, who attended the committee meeting, said the government is acting. Federal, provincial and territorial consultation is taking place to find a long-term solution. But that has been said before.

Local Senator Jim Tunney, of Grafton, is working on one of those transitional areas. He is pushing to see if farmers can move into hemp production. This controversial crop, often confused with illegal marijuana, is something he wants to see available for farmers because of the incredible number of products that use the plant – everything from food to paper to carpets.

All these ideas are sincere efforts. But it is not that easy. Only a few weeks ago, MP Ralph Goodale, who is responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, suggested it was time for western farmers to get out of wheat production. He was nearly hung – both politically and literally.

Senator Wiebe says the senate may have an important role to play in this debate. Since senators are not elected, they do not need to fear the political fallout of tough decisions that usually face members of parliament. With the proper consultation, the senate could be making recommendations to legislators on some of the tough action needed to move farmers towards long-term solutions.

The senate the house of sober second thought. Maybe it is time to light a fire under the upper chamber. The problem is nobody is paying attention, except when the Canadian Alliance is looking to score some cheap political points calling for an elected senate.

Maybe we should be paying attention. The agriculture committee will spend $195,000 in the next year undertaking consultations aimed at examining the state of agriculture in Canada. It is going to Washington with some 11 senators and staff to listen to that government’s new policies that might affect Canada. It is also going to three hearings in Eastern Canada with 23 senators and staff in tow.

It must file a report by June 2002. An interim report is not likely, only because nobody is putting any heat on senators to produce one.

Let’s put these people to work in another way.

The agriculture crisis in this country is critical and the agri-food industry needs some serious reform. We are not talking about abstract policies here. We are talking about our source of food. Without it, we don’t survive. Farmers need a champion. But first, they need to come together and speak with a single voice in order to create reform. Getting the senate to take a leading role in this massive overhaul may be a good step. Farmers are weary and so is the rest of Canada.

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