This past harvest season, a lot of Western Canadian farmers who grew oats, myself included, took something for granted. That was the ability to sell and deliver our crop to market at a time of our own choosing. Not so long ago, this was not the case. We have one man in particular to thank for this: Charlie Mayer.
Mayer was the federal minister of agriculture who, in the heyday of the Mulroney government, successfully removed oats from the jurisdiction of a government monopoly, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). Until he did that in 1989, Western Canadian farmers had no choice but to sell their food-quality oats to the CWB.
A fellow farmer and past president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, Hubert Esquirol, recently reminded me of this fact. I had mentioned how smoothly the oats harvest was going this year on our farm. We could deliver all we wanted off the combine straight to the elevator and, moreover, for a profit. A portion of the crop had been pre-priced earlier in the year for a good price but, even with the harvest rush, the spot price was high enough that a farmer could come out ahead with an average-yielding crop. And if you were willing to store it till January, you could capture a healthy premium as well.
Everything was clicking; it was all falling into place. We had lots of available choices, all of them valuable in their own way. We were able to take advantage of these options and use an incremental sales strategy of our own choosing that worked specifically for us.
In a good-humoured fashion, Hubert asked me, “Now Rolf, wouldn’t you like to go back to the ‘good old days’ when you had to wait till Christmas for the first quota to open up?” Well no, I wouldn’t. I can’t imagine many farmers, if any, who would now want to return to that archaic system where it took forever to deliver the crop and even longer to get fully paid an uncompetitive price for it. I suspect even many of those who fought tooth and nail for the status quo at the time wouldn’t be interested in going back.
“Unfortunately, today’s young farmers don’t know how far we’ve come,” Hubert continued. And he’s right. That little bit of extra freedom granted by Charlie Mayer and the Mulroney government to Western farmers just over 20 years ago has made a big difference in our lives and the profitability of our farms.
Maybe we take it for granted because when everything just works, you don’t really think that much about it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when you forget why something works, it can lead to unnecessarily repeating the mistakes of the past. This is certainly the case with wheat and barley, both of which unfortunately still remain under the rigid domain of the government monopoly.
Some will still try to argue that the increased popularity in the West of growing oats, as well as processing it, has nothing to do with moving it out from the wheat board’s control. They would have us believe that it’s just some kind of random coincidence that Western Canadian oat acreage during this past decade has been 40% higher than in the 1980s. It’s not. What these people deny, or perhaps fail to realize, is that farmers, like any business people, naturally gravitate toward those areas where they have the most control over their own outcomes. Like water, they tend to follow the path of least resistance.
Charlie Mayer understood this. He clearly saw the damage done to farmers from the government-created roadblock that kept oats from reaching its full potential on the Prairies. He worked hard to do something that far too few politicians, even so-called conservative ones, dare to do, namely remove that roadblock. He knew the right thing to do and he did it. Today’s politicians would do well to follow his example.
Thanks, Charlie! We owe you one.