Board-Boosting Blues

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

In the last few weeks, our friendly neighborhood Canadian Wheat Board hasn’t had any trouble getting noticed. Unfortunately for farmers, the attention has nothing to do with the poor job the Board has done in selling grain. It’s more about boostership and propaganda than results.

On April 6, the World Trade Organization released a report from a panel that examined a U.S. complaint against Canada over our methods of importing and exporting wheat. Although the report is about as easy to read as the Old Testament in the original Hebrew, the Board’s propaganda machine quickly blanketed the country with a news release asserting that it had been “vindicated” by the WTO. Allegations that the Board ignores “commercial considerations” were soundly rejected, the release claimed.

They failed to mention exactly what the WTO meant by “commercial considerations.” The trade panel concluded that it is not necessary that a state trading enterprise “maximize profit,” and that the marketing of grain in an “orderly manner,” to obtain “such prices as it considers reasonable” is quite acceptable under their definition. Maybe to the WTO. Cash-hungry prairie farmers might not be so quick to agree.

The Board’s braggadocio conveniently ignored a raft of WTO rulings that have gone against Canada. These include the authorization requirements for foreign grain entering Canadian elevators, the prohibition on mixing foreign with Canadian grain and the “rail revenue cap.” All these policies do violate our trade agreements and need to be rectified. These problems didn’t disappear just because the WTO caved on a few muddied definitions.

The Board then sent a letter to all WTO member countries, which claimed that the Board has been the victim of an ongoing ideological attack, and that everyone needs to calm down and be more rational about things. You’d think an outfit that regularly uses Marxist arguments to defend itself would be more careful about playing the ideology card. Especially when even the ultra-socialist EU spoke against the Board at the hearings.

In March, on the fact-based front, Sparks Inc. (, possibly the world’s most respected agricultural economics research firm, released its study of barley marketing in western Canada and the CWB’s role in it. Commissioned by the Alberta government, the study confirmed what many have long known. The monopoly system does not benefit anyone except perhaps offshore buyers, who often get Canadian barley at rock-bottom prices.

The report shows that, for the ’02-‘03 crop year, the Board was not able to supply domestic users fully. They had to import 100,000 tonnes of malting barley from Europe. Without the Board, the report says, Canada would be the preferred place to expand the malting industry. It goes on to say that the Board is not obtaining premium prices from any market. Returns in the Board’s pools averaged up to $40 a tonne less than the average non-Board market price throughout the year.

To throw more fuel on the fire, the Alberta government took out full-colour ads in farm papers that show a shifter knob on a four-speed transmission with all of the positions labeled “R,” for reverse. The accompanying caption reads, “Oh, you mean you’d rather have some options?” followed by a message urging people to visit

In the wake of the federal Liberal Party sponsorship scandal, the Canadian Farm Enterprise Network sent a pointed letter to former Wheat Board Minister Ralph Goodale. They asked about his involvement with party fundraisers that where inappropriately attended by Wheat Board officials and paid for with farmers’ money. Adding to the mix, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, a group hostile to the Board’s marketing monopoly, resurrected itself with a convention in March.

Given all this, one can understand why the Wheat Board would crow so loudly about one favourable ruling from the WTO. Board boosters have more than a few reasons to pull out the harmonica, dust off the old Muddy Waters albums and sing the blues.