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This article was published 17/4/2015 (1774 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — For many decades the Canadian Wheat Board was as symbolic of Prairie farming as the grain elevator itself.
But when news broke Wednesday confirming the sale of 50.1 per cent of the CWB to a new joint venture of an American agribusiness firm and a Saudi agriculture company, it was generally greeted across this country by a collective "meh."
While the Winnipeg Free Press carried this story on its front page, few newspapers did.
The NDP put out a press release and Winnipeg MP Pat Martin, the unofficial party critic for the wheat board, was reliably indignant at the sale. But the Liberals took a pass on commenting to the Free Press, and the brief trending of the hashtag #cwb on Twitter was quickly eclipsed by NHL playoffs, the Mike Duffy trial, the Supreme Court decision barring prayer at city council meetings and the visit to Canada of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Yes there was a flurry of reaction from the various farm organizations on either side of the CWB debate. But even many farmers, most of whom are already in their fields planting, weren't rallied to any particular call. They have long known the CWB was going to be privatized and news of the deal leaked back in December, so this confirmation of who would actually be buying it was little more than a moment of intrigue. It changes little for them.
Since 2012, farmers have already had a choice on where to sell their grain, and they have spent the better part of the last three growing seasons figuring out this new reality.
Grace Skogstad, a politics professor at the University of Toronto with a research focus on agricultural policy, told the Free Press Thursday, making the CWB into a private company owned mostly by foreign hands is about as far away from the original vision of the organization as you can get.
"The history of the wheat board, it was largely so farmers would have more bargaining power," she said.
In less than a decade, the CWB could end up without a single farmer owning a single share.
Skogstad said it's not too unexpected that this news wasn't greeted with a big fanfare. First of all it's agriculture, she noted.
When the government announced the privatization of Air Canada or Petro-Canada, the reaction was bigger mainly because the change would affect a lot more people. Almost every Canadian adult buys gas and many Canadians fly the friendly skies.
But while agriculture is still a decent economic contributor, accounting for one in eight jobs if you include agribusiness and food manufacturing, the number of actual farmers amounts to slightly more than one per cent of the adult Canadian population, and it's shrinking every year.
In Manitoba, about three per cent of the adult population in 2011 were farmers, with slightly more than 22,000 people counted as a farm operator on the 2011 Statistics Canada census of agriculture. In 2001, there were 26,625 farm operators in Manitoba.
The number of those farmers directly affected by the wheat board is but a small fraction of that. In Manitoba, just five per cent of the total farms grew wheat.
As a policy issue, the wheat board fight is mostly over. Skogstad said there is simply no turning the boat because now that the monopoly is gone, it will never be able to come back under Canada's trade agreements, including NAFTA. So it's not as if any political party can promise to reintroduce it.
And the jury is still really out on what the long-term impact will be of the sale. There are a few hundred people in Winnipeg who lost their job when the wheat board downsized from 430 employees in 2012 to about 100 today. Some farmers complain the reputation of Canadian wheat has been diminished, and argue the prices are much lower than they would have been.
Others say it's the best thing that has ever happened to them.
So it is that the once-mighty Canadian Wheat Board begins its descent into anonymity, just another private grain-marketing company among the others.
It's not that nobody cares at all. It's just that for the Conservative government, it's a mission accomplished.
Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.