Canada's Grain Farmers Stage Prairie Revolt

It will be a bittersweet harvest for many of Canada's farmers this year. Just as grain hoppers are filling with a record harvest, the Canadian government has rejected calls to allow farmers to choose where to sell their grain.

The grain-marketing monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board will continue, Agriculture Minister Ralph Goodale said on Friday, Sept. 6. His support of the board runs contrary to a review panel that recommended a limited dual marketing system, allowing farmers to sell some grains on the open market.

Canada's 25 million tons of wheat claimed more than one-fifth of the world market last year. The Wheat Board controls some $10 billion (Canadian; US$7.3 billion) in sales of several grains.

While opposing an end to the board monopoly, Mr. Goodale said he wants to amend the Canadian Wheat Board Act, which would make the Winnipeg-based board more accountable to farmers.

The timing of the decision has left many farmers fuming.

Though the issue has dominated agricultural news for more than a year, the announcement was made during the busiest week of the farming calendar. Western Canadian farmers are working around the clock to bring in an expected record harvest.

"This is not ironic," says farmer Glen Goertzen. "It's part of the plan. He makes that kind of statement at this time of the year, when people are really busy with harvest. We have no time to counteract or complain or anything."

Mr. Goertzen is a member of the Alberta Grain Commission and an adviser to the province's farm minister. He works 4,000 acres near Botha, central Alberta.

In Alberta, where farmers are among the most militant, the provincial government has said it will support farmers who choose to break the law and sell grains independent of the board. Farmers in neighboring Saskatchewan have largely supported monopoly sales;those in Manitoba are split.

Over the past year, farmers have challenged the board's control over the sales of wheat and barley. Some have been prosecuted for selling their grain directly to American buyers.

Recent high prices for wheat have encouraged the sales south of the border. American buyers have been paying as much as 30 percent more than prices paid by the Canadian Wheat Board.

The long-awaited decision by the federal government led some analysts to predict that farmers will step up defiance of the board.

But at the Botha Mercantile Store, beneath a pressed-tin ceiling, men with large hands and weathered faces have a more urgent concern: A late spring has left them with a shortened growing season. With only days left before the first frosts of winter, the talk is about whether they should harvest their still-green wheat or leave it for another week, hoping that the frosts will be late. If it freezes, they'll lose more money than if they harvest the wheat before it's ready.

Still, some farmers are already making their opposition to the federal decision known. They are well-informed and increasingly impatient with what they see as a secretive and archaic Canadian Wheat Board. Farmers for Justice, a group representing militant supporters of private sales, says it will go to the courts.

Goertzen has sent a letter of protest to the federal minister of agriculture. In it he said farmers had "done all the negotiating we can." As Goertzen says in an interview, "Civil disobedience looks like the best route for me. If I find an avenue that provides me with a higher price, that's where my grain is going to go."

About 80 percent of the wheat grown in the three prairie provinces is exported. "The world is changing," Goertzen says. "We're not selling government-to-government nearly as much as we were 20 years ago. We're selling more and more grain to small countries and to individuals in smaller countries and to niche markets.... Sales can be met far better by individuals or small companies than they ever can be met by a government-run organization. And that's just a fact."

But not all farmers want to throw out the current system. Before the agency was created more than 60 years ago, many farmers had a difficult time marketing their grain. Retired farmer Ray Nitsky harvested wheat in the Settler area of central Alberta for more than 50 years. He says that the board does need to change. But he also says that today's young farmers don't fully appreciate how vulnerable farmers once were to major grain buyers.

"Grain companies dictated what they were going to pay," Mr. Nitsky recalls. The Canadian Wheat Board's single-desk marketing improved the prices that farmers received for their crops.

But Goertzen estimates farmers now are losing $37 an acre because of the board's low prices and high transport costs.

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