The news that Potash Corporation will be laying off almost twenty percent of its work force comes as no surprise to grain farmers. Like western Canadian grain farmers, Potash Corporation was part of a single desk marketing structure designed to stabilize prices and extract maximum value for the producers through orderly marketing and quality control and assurance.
Last year much of that went out the window with the effective end of the potash single desk. Not long afterwards western grain farmers also lost their single desk Wheat Board. Now both potash and western grain will be sold by the private trade on a “volume before price strategy” to quote one analyst.
In the grain world, Australia was the first to dismantle its single desk wheat board. You can click here to see a report of the disaster unfolding down under.
It will be familiar to those hundreds of Canadians being laid off in the potash industry today and may well be the future of Canadian grain farmers as well.
Following tradition Ted Menzies, the recently resigned MP for the southern Alberta riding of MacLeod is staying in Ottawa to lobby government on behalf of genetically modified crops and agro-chemical manufactures as the new President of industry funded lobby group CropLife Canada. With the recent approval of genetically modified alfalfa, and the approvals of genetically modified wheat, salmon, and apples to name just a few on the horizon Mr. Menzies will no doubt have much work ahead of him to reassure MPs and the public that nothing can go wrong with this global science experiment.
Agriculture Minister Ritz closing our public plant breeding facilities and his move to give crop genetics developed and paid for by farmers and the Canadian public to the agro-chemical companies who back CropLife Canada no doubt lends urgency to Mr. Menzies’ new position.
Mr. Menzies spent many years working for the international grain trade’s favorite Astroturf group the Western Canadian Wheat Growers. Elected to Parliament, the affable Mr. Menzies worked behind the scenes to successfully kill the farmer controlled single desk Canadian Wheat Board.
His plans to stay in Ottawa in part no doubt reflect the unease among his former neighbours as they discover the easy nostrums so ably promoted by Mr. Menzies and his cohorts are now falling apart in the face of closing flour mills, chaotic transportation logistics, poor quality control, and the resulting loss of western Canada’s international reputation for delivering reliable supplies of high quality milling wheat, durum, and barley.
Many will recall that after arbitrarily removing oats from the single desk CWB former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was given a seat on the Board of one of the world’s largest grain companies, Archer Daniels Midland. His agriculture Minister, Charlie Mayer was given a special position with the Alberta Government to examine if farmers needed crop insurance. After that gig he went on to lobby on behalf of various clients and was recently observed in court houses following the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board cases.
Along with provincial Conservative Agriculture Ministers like Shirley McClelland (who famously said farmers did not need the wheat board when they just “should demand higher prices”) who spends much of her time haunting the University of Alberta, Mr. Menzie’s new digs bring to mind the old question “how are you going to keep them down on the farm when they have seen” (…) Ottawa?
Mr. Menzies joins a very long list of Conservative and Liberal politicians who have moved seamlessly from Government to Big Business reflecting the fact the Senate is just not big enough to hold them all.
Most Canadians have come to expect a certain level of hypocrisy from their politicians, but the current Senate scandal involving Duffy, Wallin, and Brazeau, three of the many Harper-appointed Senators have exposed this hypocrisy in spades.
Led by Conservative Senator Don Plett some Conservative Senators have suddenly become aware of the importance of due process. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal even made reference to the foundation of modern law; the Magna Carta in saying the Senate motion to suspend the three Harper Senators was “riding roughshod over due process and presumption of innocence.” Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire put it more bluntly calling it “shotgun justice.”
I would have more sympathy if I had not sat in Senator Plett’s Ottawa office while he tried to humiliate and demean a dozen young western farmers who were there at their own expense to remind the good Senator the law required that farmers have a vote on killing the Canadian Wheat Board.
A few weeks later, along with other farmers, I testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee and pointed out that a just-released Federal court ruling on the issue had confirmed farmers had a right to vote on the changes to the CWB and the Senate should suspend the legislation until the legal issues were resolved.
After all, due process and Canadian tradition dictated that the Senate should respect the Federal Court ruling, but there was to be no due process for farmers or their Canadian Wheat Board. The following week Senator Plett and his cronies rubber stamped the Harper legislation killing the Canadian Wheat Board.
So while there should be due process for Senators with dubious expense claims and the elected politicians and officials who apparently have run interference for them, readers can forgive this farmer for observing that it looks like due process is only important to some Conservatives if one is connected to the Senate.
Now that the Canadian Wheat Board is gone, how long will it be before the lights are turned off for export grain handling from Canadian ports? It may be sooner than many think.
Some years ago, when Lorne Hehn was the chief commissioner of the Canadian Wheat Board he examined alternative ways to get CWB grain to international markets. Moving grain across the prairies and over three mountain ranges to the Pacific is expensive and so is loading grain into Lakers at Thunder Bay and then trans-loading it into deep water ships in Quebec.
He found a much cheaper alternative for the eastern prairies: down the Mississippi River to the Gulf coast. However there was no ability in the American system to segregate our higher quality grain or to provide quality assurance guarantees to our international customers. So any transportation savings were more than offset by the loss of the quality premiums for farmers.
That was then. Without the CWB single desk quality assurance is largely irrelevant to the private trade if for no other reason than the CWB is no longer there to set the bar. So the recent announcement by Louis Dreyfus that it intends to spend $150 million to create a world scale grain terminal in Louisiana on the Mississippi river comes as no great surprise. Those transportation savings found by Mr. Hehn are now potential profits for the owners of Dreyfus (astutely managed by the female heir to the family company).
When this facility is up and running, the Lakehead via Thunder Bay, Baie-Comeau, Montreal, Quebec City, and Trois-Rivières become largely irrelevant to western grain exports. Some high quality milling wheat for the Warburton bakery in England may still move through Churchill and the Lakehead but that volume is small.
For the central and western Canadian prairies Riverland Ag is among several companies looking to cash in. Riverland is developing a rail facility at Northgate, Sk. just north of the Canada-US border which they claim will be capable of handling forty million bushels of grain per year, running it south into the US for export or processing. Riverland’s owner, Ceres Global Ag Corp observes in its Annual Report:
“Riverland Ag is well positioned to benefit from this strategic shift of processing companies and is equally well positioned to benefit from increased North/South flow of grains as a result of the removal of the Canadian Wheat Board marketing monopoly in Canada.” (hyperlink added)
Couple all this with the just completed expansion of the giant $200 million grain terminal at Longview, in Washington State and the fact our railways are now both owned by US investment companies and you have to ask when the lights will go out for grain transportation in Vancouver and perhaps Prince Rupert as well? How soon will the jobs of Canadian stevedores, rail workers and others follow all those lost in grain inspection, marketing, scientific research, plant breeding and food inspection which have been trashed by Ottawa already?
So thanks to killing the farmer controlled single desk Canadian Wheat Board we have more jobs for Americans in handling and processing Canadian grain, more profits for international grain companies, and a much smaller share of the grain trade pie for western farmers – what’s not to like – unless you are a western Canadian grain producer?
The great poet Robbie Burns once observed that he wished some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.
A couple of weeks ago political blogger and long time Alberta reporter David Climenhaga did just that when he wrote a column (Grass crime no! Grain crime yes! The inconsistencies of Prime Minister Harper!) on the hypocrisy of Stephen Harper being tough on crime, except when it came to pardoning lawbreaking malcontents who opposed the farmer-controlled Canadian Wheat Board.
We know that the Harper Cons are busy with other things because the column was not immediately flooded with internet trolls vilifying the author. However, one lone commentator calling himself ‘Joe Albertan’ did respond negatively with the following: “It’s always good news to dismantle a union. They serve no purpose but to drive up prices and overpay workers.”
Of course this is exactly why the Canadian Wheat Board was formed by farmers in the first place, to drive up grain prices and avoid exploitation. Mr. Climenhaga’s response gives us the gift of allowing us to see how many informed urban people see the killing of the Canadian Wheat Board:
“Just to clarify, the Canadian Wheat Board was not a union, although it did allow grain producers to bargain collectively with grain buyers, to the enormous advantage of farmers throughout Western Canada. The marketing regime now put in place by the Harper Government will be of advantage to a tiny minority of geographically fortunate farmers and the huge disadvantage to many more. Most will realize this over time but a few quasi-religious market fundamentalists – people like Joe Albertan, I suspect – will see their businesses and their hopes die but never identify their inability to bargain collectively as the cause. The days of grain farmers in the Canadian West receiving a fair price for their produce are pretty well over, thanks to the Harper Government, and I for one am not enthusiastic about hearing those farmers who supported this government with their votes complain about the fate that is about to befall them.”
In the Robert Burns poem he observes a large black louse crawling across the lace collar of the young lady sitting in front of him in church. His poem observes that the proud young woman would not be so haughty if she could see herself and her unpleasant visitor. Many western farmers, now enjoying high grain prices as the result of the drought visited on the United States may not realize until too late that they now have a whole host of parasites from the private trade crawling across their new land and equipment – but many may find their optimistic expansion plans turn to dust as grain prices return to their historic mean along with higher interest rates and the loss of our international market niche.
The international grain trade is a world of giant companies making multi-million dollar deals moving thousands of tonnes of grain in ships larger than most prairie towns. Under the tutelage and care of its staff the Canadian Wheat Board carved out a unique market niche in the world grain trade which made western Canadian grain farmers amongst the most secure on the planet.
The credit for this achievement must go to the dedicated staff at the CWB and one of its most talented architects has just passed away at the untimely age of 64. William Spafford was the CWB’s chief grain trader. He rose through the ranks in his 35-year career with the Board and was there at many historic moments. Bill’s leadership helped to consolidate western Canada’s reputation for integrity and honesty in a world grain trade where such qualities are in short supply.
Bill’s knowledge was essential for winning many trade disputes before international tribunals for the CWB and the western grain farmers it served. In spite of a heavy work load and dauntingly complex responsibilities Bill always made time to answer questions from interested farmers and others in the community. Even after his retirement Bill continued to share his knowledge and supported the grain farmers of the west.
Most farmers, this one included, tend to focus on the trees rather than the forest. Bill never lost sight of the bigger picture and western Canadian grain farmers have lost a good friend and strong champion who helped to build a better western Canada.
A memorial service will be held June 18, 2013 in Winnipeg.
Parrish and Heimbecker, a small western Canadian elevator company, which on the scale of the world grain trade would not qualify as a financier for the coffee fund of the four giants, has been blanketing the prairies with advertisements titled “Wanted your wheat” offering a twenty cent per bushel incentive if and only if the hapless farmer purchases the seed and chemicals, and commits to marketing their crop through the company’s elevators.
Not to disrespect a company but it was sheltered behind the seven decades long policy of the farmer controlled Canadian Wheat Board that made sure as many grain handlers and processors as possible survived in Canada. This policy had nothing to do with farmer altruism or nationalism, it was simple self interest. The single desk CWB was prohibited by law from having “retained earnings.” This is a lawyerly way of saying they had to pass all the sales revenue back to farmers. So the more companies the CWB had to deal with, the better for farmers.
That is all gone now, along with the real premiums to farmers for high protein milling wheat and malt barley. Hence the attempts by the smaller grain players, like P&H to secure grain handling from farmers by offering a premium less than half of the premium farmers got with our single desk.
Twenty cents a bushel is not much when you consider the end purchasers of the high protein wheat and malt barley are still likely paying those premiums, but now the money from the premiums stays with the processor or goes to the handling companies like P & H – assuming they have enough market power to extract any premiums at all.
For farmers it gets worse. The P and H offer is a sign of things to come where other handling companies, Viterra with its ownership of ESSO fuel distribution comes to mind, may soon be exercising their own market power by requiring farmers to buy seed and chemicals from them and may be tempted to make it a requirement that fuel purchases also come from them.
Due to the huge trucking distances on the prairies, most farmers only have one or at best two elevator companies to choose from. Thanks to the Harper and Ritz crowd the old song about owing your soul to the company store applies to the grain farmers now.
Congratulations to Steven Shrybman, this year’s recipient of the 2013 Rideau Institute Leadership Award.
Steven is lead counsel in the Class Action law suit to recover the value of the farmer controlled single desk Canadian Wheat Board for the farmers of western Canada.
This August Steven will be analysing the Federal Government’s submission rationalizing why they should be allowed to take, without compensation, the value of our farmer controlled single desk and he will be helping to prepare our legal team’s response on behalf of western grain farmers.
The Federal Court will hold a special hearing October 23, 2013 in Ottawa to determine if the class action is dismissed or can go ahead.
Ottawa is just feeling more and more familiar to this Albertan. I don’t really mean Ottawa the city, but the Conservatives’ government there, largely run by Albertans.
Here in Alberta we are used to major public hearings directly affecting farmers and ranchers being held right in the middle of harvest or spring seeding, just to make life a little easier for industry and a lot harder for farmers.
Now Ottawa is using the same play book. Right at the height of spring seeding, when a few days can make the difference between profit and loss, Ottawa has gazetted important changes to seed regulations. The deadline for responses is May 23rd so farmers can just park those air seeders and spend a few hours reviewing a pile of Conservative rationalizations about how turning over the management of the seed genome to the big six agro-chemical companies is a great idea.
The ETC group notes these big six multinational agro-chemical companies
“control the current priorities and future direction of agriculture research worldwide. Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, (BASF is active in the seed sector and is a leader in agrochemical sales and pesticide research, but it does not rank among the top 6 in global seed sales) Dow, Monsanto and DuPont control 59.8 % of commercial seeds and 76.1 % of agrochemicals. The same 6 companies account for at least 76 % of all private sector R&D in these two sectors.”
These regulatory changes from Ottawa will allow them to remove farmers and take control in Canada as well. The whole concept of “conflict of interest” has apparently disappeared from Ottawa, as it did years ago in Alberta.
Forage and soybean seeds will be essentially de-regulated so the private companies can discontinue the established varieties whenever they want so farmers will be forced to buy their new, more expensive modified versions. Tofu eaters and milk drinkers take notice! Without registration the established varieties can only be sold as feed, so farmers and their bankers should also take notice. A “feed” designation means the lowest prices possible. This is a story we have seen before with canola, and soon consumers and farmers will effectively have no access to non-modified varieties.
This is the first critical step to introducing many more genetically modified varieties into the Canadian farm ecosystem. The only real question is how long will it be before genetically modified wheat is on our table?
The details are in the following alert from the National Farmers Union.
From: “NFU Office”
Date: 7 May, 2013 3:05:13 PM CST
Subject: ACTION ALERT – Changes to Seeds Regulations – Deadline May 23
Please circulate widely!
Action Alert – Public Input on Regulations Amending the Seeds Regulations, Canada Gazette Part 1 VOL. 147, NO. 10 — MARCH 9, 2013
Deadline for submissions — May 23, 2013
The National Farmers Union is calling upon all concerned farmers and allies to submit comments about significant regulatory changes to Seed Variety Registration.
The proposed regulatory change has been posted in the Canada Gazette Part 1 and will be passed into law as is unless large numbers of citizens make their opposition known.
The changes proposed will have two critical effects: move registration of soybeans and all forages from Part I to Part III of Schedule III under the Seeds Regulations; and permit registrants to cancel the variety’s registration. This will make seed sales of that variety illegal and require that crops grown from that variety be classified as sample or lowest price and quality.
Crop kinds under Part I will continue to be treated the way all varieties have been until now; before a new variety is registered it must meet merit criteria (i.e., it must perform as well as or better than reference varieties for one or more criteria established for that crop kind); and it must be recommended by a Recommending Committee of experts familiar with the crop. Under Part III, a variety can be registered without field-testing or proof of merit. The registering company only has to provide basic variety registration information to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
The proposed change in regulation will also allow companies that have registered a variety to de-register it without giving reasons or notice.
The implications of these regulatory changes for farmers are far-reaching. If adopted, the regulation will:
- Permit companies to take varieties off the market whenever they like, which will increasingly force farmers to use only varieties subject to royalties under the Plant Breeders Rights Act or varieties with gene patents, and thereby pay more for seed.
- Empower companies to introduce new varieties of soybeans and forage crops – including alfalfa – that have not been field-tested for merit and which therefore may not provide any benefit to farmers.
- Allow seed companies to transfer to farmers’ shoulders all risks of poor seed/crop performance when planting varieties that have not been field tested by independent third parties.
- Transfer decision-making about which new varieties are introduced, and when, from a transparent, publicly accountable process based on expert advice offered by Recommending Committees to a behind-closed-door process controlled by private seed companies.
- Letting companies de-register varieties will permit companies to unilaterally stop farmers from accessing and using perfectly good varieties developed through long-term collaboration among farmers, public plant breeders and international seed collections.
For more information about Seed Variety Registration:
- The National Farmers Union’s submission to CFIA: http://www.nfu.ca/story/nfu-comments-regulations-amending-seeds-regulations
- The National Farmers Union 2009 press release and backgrounder on the variety registration system: http://www.nfu.ca/story/government-ignores-concerns-variety-registration-change-and-plows-ahead-anyway
- The Proposed Regulations: http://canadagazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2013/2013-03-09/html/reg1-eng.html#reg
- The CFIA’s Regulatory Impact Statement: http://canadagazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2013/2013-03-09/html/reg1-eng.html#rias
Deadline for submissions is May 23, 2013
All submissions must:
- cite the Canada Gazette, Part I, and
- the date of publication of the notice (March 9, 2013), and
- be addressed to:
National Manager, Seed Section,
Canadian Food Inspection Agency,
59 Camelot Drive,
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0Y9
Not many non-historians know that the ancient Roman Empire ran on wheat. Its major grain growing area was in North Africa, centered on present day Tunisia. Roman wheat farms were typically about sixteen hundred acres and supported about 10 coloni families and the estate owner. The families did the work and made extra money growing dates, olives, and exotic birds for Roman tables.
Roman wheat was moved to port in half ton capacity carts pulled by oxen owned by the Roman military. Then commercial ships would move it across the Mediterranean into state owned and regulated warehouses for distribution. In ancient Rome the wheat crop was so important that meddling with wheat production or transportation was the only crime that carried an automatic and immediate death penalty. On April 25, feasts, celebrations, and sacrifices were held in honour of the Roman god of wheat rust known as in the hopes of avoiding crop failure, for when the Roman wheat harvest failed, rebellions in the colonies and riots in the cities soon followed.
Rather than make sacrifices to the god of rust, western Canadian farmers and Ottawa established and funded the most sophisticated system of cereals plant breeding ever seen in human history. The modern grain trade started with developing Marquis Wheat and freely distributing it. That tradition continues on a cost recovery basis, through the and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) research stations across Canada. There scientists develop promising strains of various cereals, and test them to see if they really work and meet our quality standards. The strain is then registered as a variety and multiplied so there is enough seed to pass on to pedigreed seed growers who multiply the variety and sell the seed to farmers.
Many Canadians, however, do not know that aside from destroying the Canadian Wheat Board and killing our quality assurance system by crippling the Canadian Grain Commission, Ottawa’s Conservatives have also been busy destroying AAFC public cereal crop research even though it is funded by farmers and the public.
Earlier this year Minister Ritz announced the closure of the AAFC (originally established in 1925 as the ) and the firing of critical scientific personnel. A demoralized staff will be sent to research stations in Brandon and Morden, Manitoba. The list of eminent scientists being fired, retired, or simply quitting could go on for several paragraphs but the loss of AAFC’s only scientist working on Durum wheat and the closing of a research station and its team which was working on fusarium blight resistant wheat is a demonstration of the vandalism being carried out. Under Minister Ritz, farmers and the public will still pay for upstream development but private companies would then be given this basic material to develop seeds for farmers. Setting aside the fact privately developed seed is much more expensive than seed developed under our current system, would a giant private seed company that also manufactures insecticides, as most of them do, have carried forward development of the midge resistant wheats farmers now use?
All this is typical of the short sighted anti-science policies we have come to know . Unfortunately for those who like to eat, the Roman god of rust has apparently awoken. A new rust strain has shown up in Africa, central Europe, and California. apparently decimates wheat and other cereal crops and Canada’s ability to breed new rust resistant wheat strains has been sabotaged. There is now much less capacity to cope with this menace simply because although western Canada had the most advanced and sophisticated wheat and cereals grain research institutions and scientists on the planet, brother Harper and his less than constructive puppet agriculture Minister have crippled it all.
Wheat is the staff of life and if the initial indications about the virulence of this new rust strain prove correct, there will be serious consequences for consumers around the world. Now that our public plant breeding institutions have been severely compromised by the Conservatives, holding a feast and begging the god of rust to go elsewhere may be our best option until the grownups can take charge of Ottawa and start undoing the damage done to our cereals research and development capacity.