Ah, farming. There are few better Canadian examples of an ancient industry that has been able to reinvent itself and stay relevant in the 21st century. But some interesting changes may be on the horizon for our farming friends.

A common myth is that farming has been in long-term decline since the 1950s. Certainly the number of farms has plummeted, and the traditional family-owned-and-operated farm is becoming rare. But agriculture itself is booming, thanks to high prices and the adoption of technology. Don’t let the coveralls and rubber boots fool you! Some of the most enterprising and innovative applications of high technology, such as GPS to measure soil moisture across enormous swaths of farmland, can be found on Canadian farms. Canadian farmers are shrewd business people, too.

But more than high-technology or business prowess, farmers are known for their enormous political clout. Just about from coast to coast, rural ridings are overrepresented in the House of Commons and in provincial legislatures. At town hall meetings, it’s the farmers who show up and let you know they’re mad. Only a bold — some would say foolish — politician would mess with agricultural policy.

Enter the Harper Conservatives in 2011. Fresh off their long-coveted majority win in the last election, Stephen Harper and his party are giddy with their to-do list of policy initiatives, many of which have sat idle for years with no hope of passing in a minority House. Agricultural policies appear to be one of the areas at the top of the list.

Back in June, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz provided some details of changes coming to the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). The government has served notice that both wheat and barley will be removed from the CWB’s marketing monopoly for the 2012 crop year. And while representatives from the CWB have suggested that the decision be put to a vote among farmers, a news report at the time indicated that Minister Ritz “did not seem very warm to the idea.” According to Ritz, there already was an election, but the farming community is split.

The government insists that it is not “getting rid” of the CWB, it is only taking away its marketing monopoly. This would give farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba the option of selling their wheat and barley to other buyers. Currently, it is illegal for Prairie farmers to sell to anyone but the CWB. (That restriction does not apply to farmers in any of the other seven provinces.)

The termination of the wheat board’s marketing monopoly is an example of the smaller government the Harper Conservatives ideologically favour. And it could be a harbinger of more agricultural policy changes to come. Next on the chopping block could be one of the holiest of sacred cows: supply management in dairy.

Despite Canada’s loud talk as a free-trading nation, we are often the laughingstock at World Trade Organization meetings because of our strong protection of domestic agriculture, primarily dairy. Canadian dairy farmers enjoy enormous tariff protection from imported cheese, milk and ice cream. The reason why no government has wanted to touch supply management in dairy with a 10-foot pole comes down to one word: Quebec, home to a large percentage of Canada’s dairy. Quebec farmers would hit the barn roof if they lost their supply management protection.

Federal politics being what it is, no government in power has ever wanted to smack that hornet’s nest.

At least until now. With a disappointing showing in Quebec during the last election, the Conservatives have very little to lose by ending supply management and tariff protection for dairy farmers. Sure, there will be the typical screams of outrage and shock, particularly from Opposition Leader Jack Layton, who has now become an odd ambassador of all things Québécois. He and the provincial government will drag out all of the emotional reasons why Quebec farmers must be protected, despite the fact that almost every other industry and agricultural sector in the nation does just fine without the same amount of coddling.

The move will certainly flare up separatist ire as well, more “proof” of Ottawa’s disdain for Quebec. In normal times, that would have be a consideration for Harper. But with the Bloc all but wiped out, and the provincial Parti Québécois in disarray, the timing couldn’t be better. There may not be any credible leader in the province at the moment to whip up the discontent.

Prime Minister Harper and his party have been waiting for years to implement some of their “small government” ideologies, particularly when the rest of the world has been rolling its eyes at Canada for our backward and anti-free-trade positions. The days are numbered for the Canadian Wheat Board’s market monopoly. And, surely, the end of supply management in dairy cannot be far behind.

Photo: Shutterstock

Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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