Can a dismantling of the Wheat Board save it?

Written by By Jeffrey Lerner, CNN

Windsor raised his voice Tuesday: “We need farms bigger than 300 acres.”

He was talking about federal regulations, not crops. But his point was obvious: Canada needs more farmers and is unlikely to get more families enticed to small-scale farming without some sort of intervention.

It’s a main reason why Canada was once such a massive producer of bread and milk.

Now it is neither. The federal government reports that the number of dairy farmers has dropped from 18,000 in 1947 to fewer than 1,000 in 2007. The number of beef farmers has fallen from 6,300 in 1987 to 900 today. Ontario alone had more than 2,000 fewer farms in 2016.

“They’re melting and going away and we’ve seen an unprecedented reduction in this country,” said Senator Romeo Dallaire, co-chair of the Special Committee on Economic Growth, in an interview.

Dallaire said his group was getting a lot of pushback from farmers when they gathered to debate a proposal that would require the Canadian Wheat Board to begin doing limited dairy and grain marketing.

Just recently, the agency was dismantled, and many members say they are scared that it won’t be able to stay afloat without the marketing mandate.

But the politicians said Tuesday that the Wheat Board has done its job, and that there are many other farmers who could be holding the same fort if the board had been around.

Gary Wright, a farmer in Southern Alberta, said the government should extend the Wheat Board’s mandate for at least one more year to make sure it stays afloat.

“If we didn’t have the Wheat Board, we would have no marketing for our grain in this country.”

Farmers will be disappointed with any proposed change, he said, but the government needs to take the concerns of small farmers seriously because it is important for future employment.

“Because of our size we could possibly provide the biggest opportunities for job growth and access to the international market,” Wright said.

The agency is a major source of revenue for farmers. The commercial portion of its business brought in $1.6 billion in revenue in 2012-13.

If it stopped it might be enough to collapse the board’s financial status. Duffy said that would be a monumental mistake.

Michael Harris, chairman of the board’s board of directors, said there’s no reason to think the agency will collapse if it doesn’t have a mandate.

The government says it will address issues of farm sector diversity in consultations that will begin after the spring.

“We are pleased the Committee’s final report has recognized that dairy marketing decisions are best made at the local level, and recognizes that international market presence has a part to play in a diversified farm sector,” Sen. Duffy said in a statement.

But there’s more to come on a campaign that will not be wrapped up before a new government takes office in October.

“There’s something about farmers, some of them just can’t, I don’t know, quit,” said Dallaire.

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