Wheat board chair demands farmer vote on future
June 17, 2011
Source: The Canadian Press
REGINA — The head of the Canadian Wheat Board says the repercussions will be huge if the federal government takes away the board's marketing monopoly.
Chairman Allen Oberg told about 300 farmers at the Western Canadian Farm Progress Show in Regina on Thursday that the board can't survive in an open market because it is not a grain company with assets.
"The Canadian Wheat Board has nothing," Oberg told reporters after the breakfast meeting with farmers.
"It's simply a marketing agency. It's never operated as a grain company and to expect it now, after 75 years, to change and compete against people who have been in the business, that's simply naive."
Prairie farmers have had no choice but to export their grain through the board since 1943 when it was set up in response to plummeting prices. But many western Canadian farmers have demanded the freedom to sell their grain independently as their eastern counterparts already do.
The federal government has announced its intention to end the board's single desk for wheat and barley as of August 2012, with legislation likely to be introduced this fall.
Oberg wants farmers to push Ottawa to hold a vote on the wheat board's future. He suggests it's best to ask farmers directly whether they support the board's single-desk marketing for wheat and barley.
"They run it. They pay for the entire cost of its operations, so they are the ones that should decide its future and we're demanding a plebiscite be held."
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz dismissed the idea of a plebiscite. Ritz said farmers endorsed an end to the monopoly when they voted in a majority Conservative government in last month's election.
Ritz has said farmers should have the right to seek better prices elsewhere and, if the wheat board really is their best option, it will survive.
"They may not have the same assets as a grain company, but they tell us they have support of a majority of farmers. That gives them a great base to draw grain from," said Ritz.
"They tell us they're expert international marketers in 70 some countries. They also tell us they have assets around the world to make the connections between buyers and sellers. I think they've got a tremendous base to work from should any of that be true."
But Ritz also said the board's chances of survival "are diminishing" because it won't work with Ottawa.
"We're looking for a viable option," said Ritz.
"The wheat board is intransigent. They want to go backwards, they want the status quo. They're busy pointing out what all they can't do, when what they should be doing is sitting down, working with us on what they can and should do to move forward."
Oberg said the board and the farmers need more answers.
"We're putting it to the minister that we need some definition around what he means by strong and viable," he said.
"If the wheat board loses the single desk and has to operate as a grain company, it would need some major concessions from the federal government to survive, such as a capital base, such as access to facilities. Those are the kinds of things that we need to compete in an open market today."
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