Producers gather to celebrate grain marketing freedom

Thursday evening, just hours before federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was to meet with grain producers on a Saskatchewan farm to mark the passage of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, Kevin Bender booked a flight to Regina.

Thursday evening, just hours before federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was to meet with grain producers on a Saskatchewan farm to mark the passage of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act, Kevin Bender booked a flight to Regina.

The Bentley-area farmer felt he should be at the Friday morning gathering — both as president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, which supports marketing choice for farmers, and as someone who’s argued strenuously for Wheat Board change. His plane, which arrived in Regina at midnight, also carried Western Barley Growers Association director Doug McBain, Alberta Agriculture Minister Evan Berger, and Assistant Deputy Minister Colin Jeffares — who were all travelling to the same event.

Also on the road Thursday evening was Jeff Nielsen, an Olds-area farmer and former Wheat Board director who resigned in October in response to a campaign by other directors to block the federal government’s efforts to remove the Wheat Board’s monopoly powers over the marketing of Western Canadian wheat and barley.

They joined more than 100 others at the Balgonie, Sask. farm where Ritz led the celebration.

“This feels damn good,” said Ritz. “It’s been a long time coming.

“First they said it shouldn’t be done. Then they said it couldn’t be done, and then they said it wouldn’t be done because they’ll take us to court.

“But here we are — finally you have marketing freedom.”

Bender and Nielsen were also in an enthusiastic mood on Friday.

“We’re elated,” said Bender.

“It’s just a really strong feeling of accomplishment that we’ve reached a goal and the future is going to be that much brighter now.”

“It’s been a long road and it’s great to have this come to a conclusion,” agreed Nielsen.

The bill received third reading and final approval in the Senate Thursday afternoon, with royal assent following that evening. The act will now take effect Aug. 1.

Bender and Nielsen both spoke in favour of the bill before the Senate agriculture committee last week.

The government has been criticized for the speed with which it pushed the bill through, but Nielsen said it was critical the issue be resolved so farmers can begin marketing next year’s crop. He added that the issue had already been debated for years.

“I’ll be 50 next year and I’ve had this topic in my life since I took my permit book out when I turned 16.”

Some uncertainty remains, with the Wheat Board and eight of its farmer-elected directors applying to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench to declare the law invalid. The Wheat Board has since withdrawn from the action and the new legislation has removed the remaining elected directors from the marketing agency’s board.

But former Wheat Board chairman Allen Oberg said they will continue the fight.

“We’ve all decided that we will push to halt . . . this and hopefully we’ll have a favourable decision.

“It’s not the end. And I think there’s an important principle here.

“If this legislation continues it will be the end of a farmer-owned organization and . . . really just a government-controlled grain company is what it’s been transformed into.”

Bender disagrees, pointing out that voluntary pools survived in Ontario and Australia after single-desk marketing agencies came to an end there.

Nielsen added that the Wheat Board has many skilled people and established relationships with buyers around the world.

The Red Deer Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying for Wheat Board reform for nearly a decade, and convinced the Alberta and Canadian chambers to adopt the same position.

“Very pleased,” said Red Deer Chamber president Maureen McMurtrie of the act’s passage. “It’s been a long time coming.

“Our concern has always focused solely on ensuring marketing choice for producers, and giving farmers in Western Canada the same rights and freedoms that exist in the rest of this country.”

Bender is confident wheat and barley producers will benefit from an open market.

“It opens up so many opportunities,” he said, predicting more processing and value-added opportunities will result, as well as new markets.

“When we look at what’s happened with all the non-board crops, with canola being the primary one, but even with oats and peas and lentils, there are a lot of things happening and developing. I think we’re going to see that with wheat and barley as well.”

A transitional board made up of the remaining government-appointed directors will now guide the Wheat Board.

With files from The Canadian Press.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com