Ban on New Hog Barns Is Poor Policy

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

The provincial government’s indefinite moratorium on new hog barns in Manitoba is the latest in a long list of poorly thought-out policies that hurt rather than help farmers. From the BSE crisis to the much-hated cattle tax, inappropriate meddling in Wheat Board politics and now the ban on barns, the list shows a clear bias – a preference for interfering with farmers’ lives over working towards their improvement.

The Province’s own overly inflated phosphorus contribution charts show that hog barns in total may represent only one percent of the total load into Lake Winnipeg. Even if that figure is accurate, officials know full well that new barns are not the problem. Built to incredibly high standards, they are arguably the most environmentally sustainable of any livestock operations in North America, and possibly the world.

These state-of-the-art facilities play no part in the phosphorus problem. If older ones in sensitive areas do, the Province should work with them to clean up their act, not forbid new entrants. Stung by the backlash on Oly-West, they prefer instead to curry favour with the environmental activists in their midst, by shutting the door on the only sector in agriculture that has shown any growth in recent years.

Farmers take responsible nutrient management and nutrient recycling very seriously. Soils where manure is applied are tested every year for their nutrient levels and the manure is then applied to meet the nutrient requirements of the crops planted there, with buffer strips left around sensitive areas and waterways. Manure storage facilities are engineered, licensed and regularly inspected. The nutrients stay put until it is time to recycle them, and extra care is taken to insure that there is no seepage into surrounding groundwater or into underground aquifers.

The best the Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk had to offer in the BSE crisis was smoke and mirrors. While other provinces found ways of easing the burden, Manitoba essentially threw up its hands and turned the whole mess into a feel-good, public relations campaign of little substance. Once the crisis was over, they suddenly found the inspiration to do what far too many governments believe is the simple solution to everything: create a new tax on cattle, and a new bureaucracy to go with it.

Cattle farmers still recovering from the “mad cow” debacle were rightly incensed over this authoritarian scheme, but had no say in the matter. The government made the decision unilaterally and farmers have to live with it. In this policy envelope, the government showed as much disdain for collective rights as it regularly does for individual rights.

On the highly divisive matter of the CWB, the Province has endeavoured to stir the pot to full boil. Their strategy rotates between fear-mongering, voodoo economics and rationalizing that jailing farmers who want to sell their own grain is okay as long as they get a chance to vote on it. Never mind that the CWB is something completely outside of their authority and jurisdiction, or that half of Manitoba’s farmers want it reformed. At least with the cattle tax, the Minister gave producers the right to opt out, a right she now doesn’t recognize when it comes to wheat and barley.

Farmers already have to deal with all of the usual problems, such as weather, insects, ever-changing supply and demand factors, not to mention the $300 billion worth of subsidies foreign governments dump into the marketplace on a yearly basis. Is it too much to ask that their own provincial government stop continually stabbing them in the back?

Enough is enough, already. Our agriculture policy should focus on growth, not shut it down completely. If the government of Manitoba isn’t interested in helping farmers, the very least they should do is stop picking on them.