The Canadian Wheat Board says the federal government will have to help it buy port facilities and grain elevators – or let it abandon the barley market altogether – if farmers vote to eliminate the board’s monopoly.
Chairman Ken Ritter said the board of directors has studied all the options for working in a dual barley market, but none of them would benefit farmers when compared to competing grain companies.
“We came to the conclusion that without a complete set of physical assets and a bunch of capital, the CWB could not market barley,” Ritter said from his farm near Kindersley, Sask.
Ritter and other monopoly supporters have made similar statements in recent months, but this is the first time board directors have taken a formal position.
Federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl is expected to announce the results of a farmer plebiscite on the future of the board’s barley monopoly later this week.
Farmers were asked whether they wanted to maintain the status quo, exclude the wheat board from the barley market completely, or have the option of selling their grain to the board or another buyer.
Strahl said there is no money in the current budget to meet the board’s request for help in a potentially competitive market.
He added he’s frustrated the board is taking such a firm position now when it refused to participate in a task force that looked at the issue last fall.
“I’ve asked the board on many occasions to help out with some ideas and get their oars in the water and I’ve received nothing to date,” said Strahl. “It’s kind of been discouraging on my part.”
Supporters of a dual market insist the board could be competitive if it made an effort to prepare.
But Ritter, pointing to a recent study funded by the board, said the monopoly creates an extra $59 million a year in value for farmers.
He said the wheat board would be in an impossible situation if it tried to use the same elevators and port facilities that the owners, such as Agricore United, would be using to compete with the board.
“It would be like having two Ford garages in town, both selling the same product, and telling one to make a deal with the other Ford garage to get some display room for their vehicles on their floor – that’s the business position we’re in,” said Ritter.
But those who believe a competitive market is quite plausible say the board has been acting “childish” by refusing to see the realistic options that exist.
“The attitude almost seems to be that if they can’t have things they way they want, they’ll just pick up their toys and go home,” said Rolf Penner, a farmer and agricultural policy fellow with the Frontier Centre.
“If these people honestly believe they can’t do it, maybe they should step aside and the people who believe they can need to have a shot at it.”
Penner, who farms near Morris, Man., about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, disagreed with Ritter about the level of co-operation the wheat board could expect to receive from its competitors who own the elevators and port facilities.
Penner said excess capacity means they’d be eager to have board grain pass through their facilities.