By Tim Kalinowski
The Alberta Federation of Agriculture says what it wants the parties to focus on in this election season is the broader bread and butter issues which affect agriculture in Canada as a whole, including supporting farmers through trade disputes, clarifying international trade agreements and creating sound policies which rely on input from everyday producers in their construction.
In terms of the ongoing fallout from the China dispute, and other international trade uncertainties, AFA president Lynn Jacobson says he would like to see some movement on creating a federal business risk management program for agriculture.
“Business risk management programs are an issue all across Canada for farmers,” he says. “It’s one of the things we have been working on for a long time, and trying to make that program more responsive to what’s actually happening.
“For example, when you talk about the China trade dispute what Saskatchewan is asking for at this point in time is an ad hoc (risk management program). That’s all fine and good to ask for these ad hocs, and you have something which may help with this price drop due to the China dispute.
“However, what happens when the market turns down all by itself without a trade issue in there? Would we still be asking for an ad hoc? Probably. But I think we need to keep pushing for a (federal) business risk management program that accounts for, and is more responsive, to all these actions and variations within the market.
“I think we would be way better off to have a program that would be responsive to all these things, and it would give more certainty to our industry.”
Jacobson admits there is not much the government could have done to avert the dispute with China, but he says a lot of farmers feel adrift due to the ongoing vacuum of information on the issue.
“Part of it is showing they are listening and reacting to farmers’ concerns,” he says. “In the past we have raised issues that basically got ignored, and that is part of the problem.
“Some of the trade issues, particularly China, it would not have mattered which government was in force; especially when you look at the background and read what the U.S. extradition treaty with Canada says … But any government has to show it is listening and meeting with people, and showing us the progress they have made, or some of the roadblocks they are running into.
“Then there is at least some level of understanding of what’s going on as a farmer, and it’s not just the vacuum of information where you don’t have any understanding of what the hell is going on.”
Jacobson says lack of communication and consultation on specific policies with producer groups has been the hallmark of many past federal governments in his experience, and not just the current Liberal one. However, the current government has to wear the poor communication approach it took to the seed royalties issue and the Canadian Grain Act review, which is analyzing the role of the Canadian Grain Commission has in checking off exports to ensure they meet quality standards.
“There is an export industry push, as far as we can see, that wants to take away some of the value of the input from Canadian producers,” states Jacobson. “We want to say to all the parties: If we are going to make some changes to things like the seed value-added and the Canadian Grain Act, you have to have producer buy-in to do this.”
One area where Jacobson’s concerns strongly overlap with his federal counterparts at the CFA is on the issue of environmental stewardship. He says Alberta has lagged behind on its modernization on the environmental farm plan front, and it is already beginning to hurt the province’s agriculture industry.
Jacobson confirms that the Alberta government has only just recently agreed to buy-in to the federal environmental farm plan fund mere days before that funding was set to expire. While this is an area of provincial jurisdiction, Jacobson sees merit in national standards on this front, which can help with Canada’s ag brand and help it to address some of social licence concerns out there.
“They (the federal government) can promote it; especially for trade,” he says. “And it’s about having the provinces buy into it. Each province seems to have a different view on it. If you look at Ontario, for example, they have a fairly comprehensive environmental farm plan, and all producers really have to follow it, and they have certain levels they qualify at, depending on their practices.
“In Alberta and Saskatchewan, as far as I know, it is basically we had an environmental farm plan that could meet the silver rating, which is mid-range equivalent, in Ontario.
“It does satisfy a lot of things, but the trouble with our plan in Alberta is it is not renewable on farms. So basically 20 years ago people got their environmental farm plan and never had to renew it again, but that does not account for the new standards and new information.”
Jacobson says he knows its frustrating for his members to have all these new sustainability expectations put upon them, but the market is increasingly demanding it.
“We’re tied in with the market, and this is what the market wants now,” he explains. “And it’s what our customers want— we really don’t have much say on the standards of what the people who are buying our products want. We can promote and show them we have become more environmentally aware of sustainable production. They want some type of assurance about that environmental awareness now.”
But also like his federal CFA counterparts, Jacobson believes farmers can’t let any of the parties play divide and conquer over these issues. Agriculture, he says, must try to speak with one voice.
“One of the things I have always noticed about farm organizations is we are very divided within our own industry, and we have so many different voices,” he says. “These guys don’t like these guys, and these guys don’t like these other guys over here— it seems we can’t get together as a unified industry lots of times when we really need to.
“I think the message we really want to convey is agriculture is a really valuable part of the Canadian economy. The spin-off jobs and the economic value of having a viable agriculture industry is tremendous. Governments have to recognize while in agriculture we are a much smaller voter base now, we have a large economic footprint in Canada.
“In order to keep that and grow that, and increase that value to the Canadian economy, we want to stress to all the political parties that, ‘Hey, we’re important.’”