Begin Canadian Wheat Board Reforms

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Just say the words “Canadian Wheat Board” to three Prairie farmers and you’ll quickly hear four different opinions. What should be done about this “single desk” grain-selling agency, if anything?

There seem to be three “camps” when it comes to proscriptions for the CWB. Some want the Board to function “as is;” others want choice in marketing (the “dual marketers”); still others want the Board abolished completely. A tough question for those who want to rid us of the CWB is, “Why does the United States get so upset at the Board?” They don’t like to think it’s perhaps because the Board is very good at what it does, selling wheat.

These debaters have entrenched positions and “throw bombs” at the other side, precluding the development of rational policies to promote Prairie agriculture. When asked if he preferred capitalism to socialism, Deng Xiao Ping, formerly top dog of the Chinese Communist Party, said,“I do not care what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice”. His remarks were well said and should apply as well to all policy debates, including the increasingly long-in-the-tooth debate about the CWB. We lose sight of our common goal, to get the wheat into the bins and money into farmers’ pockets.

Rural and agricultural policies should promote sustainable communities. Because so many of our communities are in decline, we must rigorously question and analyze all our major institutions. Do they pass the “sustainability test?” The jury is still out on the CWB, but the current plight of “wheat-based” communities is clearly not pretty. But if the House of Commons Agricultural Committee has its way, we may be in for a bit of Board “policy experimentation.” Earlier this month, the all party Committee made the following recommendation:

“Whereas additional on-farm activities and local value-added processing are an excellent way to give farmers more influence in prices, the Committee recommends that the board of directors of the CWB authorize, on a trial basis, a free market for the sale of wheat and barley, and that it report to this Committee on the subject.”

This bold admission of a pressing need for policy innovation shook the staid, some say stagnant, world of western farm policy. The trick is to move ahead without getting stuck in the increasingly irrelevant ideological spinning of yesterday’s wheels.

Food company executive, John Heimbecker, in no rush to abandon single-desk selling completely, suggests we conduct a three to five year “policy experiment”, where farmers would have a choice in the marketing of feed and malt barley for export. Malt and feed barley combined represents a small part of the Board’s business (about 3 million tonnes vs. 19 million tonnes of wheat). Heimbecker thinks that such an experiment would “iron out the administrative and arbitrage kinks” in a potential dual-marketing system and provide valuable information on its acceptance by Prairie farmers. If the experiment fails, there’s nothing to stop government and farmers from placing export barley back under the CWB. If it does work – and the last, brief excursion into dual barley marketing arguably did -, we will have the model upon which to build dual marketing for wheat.

Policy disputes over the CWB distract the farm community from more important issues like European and U.S. farm subsidies, Heimbecker says. Now, more than ever, Canadian agriculture needs a united front.

The survival of Prairie communities depends on our ability to adapt to the world as it is. We must be nimble, creative, and willing to change. Challenging all of our institutions all of the time will not only make them better, it will provide us with the tools to prosper.