Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Farmers voice CWB frustration

Hundreds pack meeting outside city

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The atmosphere Wednesday evening in the main hall of the Oak Bluff Recreation Centre, just southwest of Winnipeg, was filled with the frustration of people who felt that higher powers are pushing forward, regardless of what they have to say.

It was standing room only as hundreds of farmers discussed the future of the Canadian Wheat Board at a meeting organized by the single-desk marketer of wheat and barley. The Harper government intends to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on western Canadian wheat and barley, effective Aug. 1, 2012.

Dozens arrived at the meeting early and stood outside the recreation centre doors with signs holding messages like "Respect farmers, respect our vote," "Single desk is best" and "Farmer majority supports CWB."

During the meeting, Canadian Wheat Board executives gave presentations on why the decision contravenes legislation that established the board, and why the board gives farmers both the best price for their grain and imposes the lowest costs. Chief operating officer Ward Weisensel talked for 20 minutes, but he seemed largely to be preaching to the converted.

One man rose to speak after Weisensel was done: "I'm just up here to say that if we're doing any negotiating with the government on how the wheat board is going to look after this -- there is no wheat board without the single desk and the only negotiating we should be doing with them is they better pick up the tab for what's left after the board's gone," he said. The room broke into applause.

Another man asked how the board will operate without its monopoly.

"Where is this road map going forward with respect to regulations and a marketing plan? We have less than one year until this legislation (comes into effect)... As a sailor, the first thing you learn is on a heaving deck in the middle of a hurricane, you don't let go of your firm hold, as you move on that deck, until you have a damn good hold on where you're going," said Marv Pierce, a western Manitoba farmer.

In response, Weisensel said only that the board has looked at alternatives to the single desk and there are many discussions going on between the board and the government.

If there were many farmers in the room who supported dismantling the board's monopoly, they weren't very vocal.

Mike Bast, a farmer from Lasalle, Man., and the director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers' Association, an open-market lobby group, stood in the back of the room. He said he recognized about 20 or 30 other faces who agreed that the monopoly should be abolished.

"All my other commodities that I grow, I decide how I market them and when I market them, and wheat is the only one that I don't, and right now in my business model and my plan, it doesn't work well for me not being able to market the wheat when I want to and how I want to," said Bast, who farms 2,000 acres.

He said currently, the wheat board is offering a price lower than the average price he could obtain over an 18-month period.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says farmers support his plan to open the wheat market.

"We're glad to see that the board is going to talk to farmers because they'll hear what we've been hearing -- that farmers want marketing choice to make their own business decisions," Ritz said in an email.

"The CWB needs to realize that regardless of how many pro-board farmers attend their meetings or participate in their expensive survey, no one farmer should trump the rights of another farmer," Ritz wrote.

Supporters of the board at the meeting said repeatedly that they like the fact that it's a non-profit organization run by farmers -- not big business.

"The wheat board is the only organization that works for farmers in the whole supply chain," said Drew Baker, 24, a fifth-generation farmer.

william.burr@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2011 A4

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