Wheat Board Stacks the Deck in Effort to Retain its Monopoly

Commentary, Marketing Boards, Frontier Centre

The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) is using old tricks to justify its monopoly over prairie wheat and barley sales. The board is conducting a mail-in plebiscite among western farmers that is rigged to give it the result it wants – namely the appearance of widespread support for its “single-desk” marketing of all wheat and barley harvested for human consumption.

On the surface, the plebiscite appears straightforward and sincere. It asks farmers whether they want to “maintain the ability to market all wheat (and barley) … through the CWB single-desk system” or “remove the single-desk marketing system from the CWB and sell all wheat through an open-market system.”

But the simple two-choice ballot ignores what the board knows is a third, more-popular option. The plebiscite excludes the possibility of a voluntary board. It ignores the option of “dual marketing” under which farmers could decide for themselves whether to sell their grain through the board or on their own.

And I can only conclude the omission was deliberate – an effort by the board to make the result look like a ringing endorsement of its continued existence as a monopoly over grain sales.

Every spring, the board surveys farmers and asks what option they would prefer. This year, 40% supported the 68-year-old government monopoly (technically a monopsony – one buyer, many sellers), 13% sided with the open market, while 45% preferred “dual marketing,” i.e. a voluntary board.

This in itself demonstrates a remarkable failure by the board to win support. Over the past two decades, the number of farmers growing wheat and barley on the Prairies has fallen by over 40% as tens of thousands of producers have stopped growing so-called “board grains” and taken up harvesting other crops so as to escape the board’s control. These former CWB farmers are not polled by the board in its annual survey nor are they eligible to vote in the current plebiscite. And still the CWB cannot find majority support.

Admittedly, the fact that just 13% of farmers are willing to risk all their crops on the open market means most prairie growers still have concerns about dog-eat-dog grain sales. It also means most farmers still want the safety-in-numbers option of pooling their grain through the CWB when they believe it suits them.

But it does not mean they are enthusiastic supporters of monopoly grain marketing. Indeed, support for continuing the monopoly seldom creeps above 40% and is mostly confined to older farmers and those who farm smaller plots, neither of whom want to be bothered having to manage the sale of their own grain.

So why doesn’t the board’s current plebiscite contain the three options traditionally contained in its own annual producer surveys? Because the new federal Tory majority government has promised legislation this fall that would make the board voluntary. And since the board opposes any option other than retention of its existing monopoly, it wants a result to wave in front of media and the government that appears to show strong farmer support for the status quo.

In other words, the current board plebiscite is little more than a propaganda exercise. The board knows a plurality of farmers favours dual marketing and a majority might even vote for an option other than the existing monopoly if a voluntary CWB were one of the boxes they could check. But it suspects (probably correctly) that a majority will vote for the monopoly if the only other choice is a fully open market. So the board has only given farmers two options, its way or the highway.

Expect the board to leap up when the Tories introduce their board reforms this fall and insist the government has no respect for the will of farmers, citing its own heavily manipulated vote as proof.

But if most farmers want a voluntary CWB and the Tories change the law to give them one, who is it that is truly disrespecting farmers, the government or a game-playing CWB?

What’s more, majority rule cannot justify taking away farmers’ right to market their own grain as they see fit. Even if the board’s plebiscite where an honest representation of farmers’ desires, the board would have no moral authority to bind the hands of farmers seeking grain-selling freedom.