Feds table marketing freedom bill

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Would mean open market for grain by next summer

Alberta farmers will be able to sell wheat and barley on the open market by next August, but will have to give up their farmer-controlled wheat board to get it, according to a federal government bill introduced Tuesday.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz tabled Bill C-18 in the House of Commons that, if passed, would end the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on grain sales in Western Canada effective Aug. 1, 2012, and allow farmers to sell wheat and barley on the open market.

Speaking at an Ontario farm shortly after tabling the legislation, Ritz said the Conservatives are delivering on a deal they made with western farmers when they helped the PCs win a majority in the last election.

“Let me be clear: every single western Canadian farmer will finally have the right to choose how they market their own grain.”

This bill is about giving farmers the choice to do what they wish with the crops they grow, Ritz said, and would create new jobs and spin-off industries in agriculture.

But the bill also proposes to replace the farmer-controlled wheat board with one run by government appointees, said Allen Oberg, chair of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).

“This is not about putting farmers in the driver’s seat. It’s about removing us altogether and handing the steering wheel to the huge foreign corporations that control the world grain trade.”

Farmers voted in favour of keeping the single desk in a plebiscite this year, Oberg said, and have repeatedly voted for pro-single-desk directors. “This is not about giving farmers a choice. It’s about ignoring the choices they’ve already made.”

Thumbs up from locals

If the bill passed, farmers would be able to make advance contracts for their crops with whomever they want as of August 2012. Farmers would also be able to pool their grain through the voluntary board, with the federal government backing its prices.

This bill gives western farmers the same rights as those who live in the east, said Brian Storseth, Member of Parliament for Westlock-St. Paul, and gives young farmers the incentive they need to stay in the business.

“These are the guys who are out there making tons more money with canola right now, and they’re marketing that canola on their own.”

These young farmers believe they have the skills to make it big on the open market, he said, and have lobbied hard for this legislation.

Walter Tappauf, who farms about 15,000 acres west of St. Albert, said he would be happy to see the CWB go with the passage of this bill because it “has outlived its usefulness.”

The board’s monopoly on wheat and barley is discouraging new flour mills from starting operation in Alberta, Tappauf said, as they cannot buy their grain right from the farmer.

“We’re losing a lot of economic development because of this board.”

Farmers already market their own oats, peas and canola, he said, so “why shouldn’t wheat and barley be the same?”

Transition questions

The CWB is currently run by 10 elected directors and five appointed ones. Should this bill pass, the board would be replaced by a voluntary organization run by five appointed people.

You need a fresh start when creating a new organization, Storseth said, when asked about the decision to get rid of the elected directors. “Everybody needs to be working in the same direction.”

Those appointees would have until 2016 to come up with a plan to privatize the board, said officials, speaking on background. If the plan did not meet the government’s expectations, it could dissolve the board in 2017.

Oberg said there was little point to having a voluntary board without a single-desk marketing system, noting that the Ontario one is very small and that the Australian one closed after two years. “It would be of limited value to farmers.”

Ritz did not rule out the possibility of having an agribusiness giant like Viterra or Cargill buy out the board to privatize it faster.

“It will be up to farmers to make use of that [new]entity or it will not survive.”

The government hopes to have the bill passed by the year’s end, Ritz said.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.