Federal Agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau came to Winnipeg with support for things such as developing an agricultural producers’ code of practice and new insurance products for farmers who get caught in the uncertainties of technical trade barriers like the canola blockade in China.
She did not have any relief to offer Manitoba farmers on the issue currently most distracting to them, the costly carbon tax on fuel used for grain drying and heating barns.
Speaking to a large audience at the CropConnect conference, Bibeau applauded Manitoba farmers for their resilience last year in dealing with tough weather conditions, a rail disruption and international trade controversies.
"Please know that I and our government deeply respect and appreciate what you do," she said.
To address some of those issues, she said the federal government will provide about $1.2 million to the Canadian Grains Council to develop the first ever code of practice for the grain industry and to develop a pilot insurance product for grain exporters to help mitigate the risk in dealing with shipments that are rejected at the border of importing countries as a result of unexpected technical trade barriers.
In the shadow of the ongoing dispute between Canada and China over its rejection of Canadian canola because of unsubstantiated claims of pest contamination, Bibeau said Ottawa wants to find innovative ways to help producers deal with those potentially costly scenarios.
"As Canadians we stand by our strong rules-based trading policies and our science-based decisions. It is a big strength for Canada," she said. "In recent years we have seen some of our trading partners do not give as much credit to this rules-based approach. This is why we have to face the new reality and to find innovative ways to support our producers. This pilot insurance program is one way to support them."
On the code of practice initiative, Rick White, the vice-chair of Canadian Grains Council and the CEO of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, said it will go a long way to address some of the concerns from consumers about whether farmers are paying attention.
"Consumers around the world are more distant from the farms, more urbanized, than they have ever been," he said. "They have legitimate concerns about food safety and the environment. This code of practice will document what farmers are already doing. It will give farmers some ideas about what they are doing well and what areas they could be doing better in."
When it comes to the issue of relief on the carbon tax on grain drying or barn heating, Bibeau did not have much to offer. Manitoba’s proposed carbon tax exempted grain drying. Premier Brian Pallister scrapped his proposed plan in October 2018, so the federal government imposed its own on Manitoba.
"I definitely recognize that 2019 was a very difficult year for our farmers because of the weather and because of trade and train disruptions," Bibeau said to reporters. "I am working with my colleagues including the environment minister to find the best ways to support our farmers. But we still have some work to do to see how we can proceed."
Late last year she said her department was collecting data on what the impact of that tax would have on Prairie farmers, a tax that greenhouse operations in Ontario, for instance, are largely exempt from.
Earlier in the week, Ottawa and Alberta announced a $2-million partnership agreement to help grain producers invest in improvements to Alberta farmers’ grain-handling systems to improve energy efficiency within their operations. Bibeau was coy about whether Ottawa is developing a similar strategy for Manitoba, or what, if anything, is being considered.
Patty Rosher, general manager of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said it is important to look at the big picture and the impact on farmers.
"As a principle, farmers have to dry grain, they have to heat their barns and they can’t pass those costs on to consumers," she said. "We don’t want to be distracted by talk of a small program (like the one in Alberta)... not that it is not welcome — I’m sure Alberta farmers are happy about it — or even talks about paying back what they paid this year. Really we want to talk about the long-term exemption for those fuels."
Some farmers incurred thousands of dollars in additional costs this year. In particular, some corn farmers paid more than $6,000 in carbon tax on drying and barn-heating operations.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.