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NDP plan to change funding model for agricultural commissions is unlikely to much help farmers or the government

Alberta Agriculture Minister Oniel Carlier (front left) and Alberta Beef Producers Chair Bob Lowe (front right). GoA Photo

Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, flanked by members of Alberta's 13 agricultural commissions, announced legislation yesterday that will allow the organizations to choose which dues check-off model they want to use to charge producers for the services they provide.

At an extremely sparsely attended news conference in the Legislature Building's media room yesterday, Carlier described the changes introduced with Bill 9, the Marketing of Agricultural Products Amendment Act 2017, as "supporting agricultural commissions by giving producers more autonomy to choose which service-charge model works best for their industry."

Boiled down, the amendment means the various check-off commissions -- whose members produce beef, barley, honey, canola, elk, lamb, oats, forage seed, pork, wheat, alfalfa, spuds and peas and beans, the latter two being one category, in case you were counting -- can decide if their dues are refundable or non-refundable.

That's important because under the act with much the same name passed by the Progressive Conservative government of premier Ed Stelmach in 2009, all commission charges were fully refundable if a producer, say a big feedlot that had been paying $2 for every head of cattle that passed through its gates, felt like filing the paperwork. So producers had to pay but, at the end of the year, they had the opportunity to un-pay.

Alberta was the only Canadian province that did things that way, supposedly to let producers express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their commission, in which their membership is compulsory if they sell that commodity.

Now -- if the commission can win a plebiscite to go to a non-refundable model, rules to be decided later -- dissatisfied members will in theory have the opportunity to vote in a new executive instead.

But this is the not really end of the story, and what remains is important, even to city folks.

Yes, the government of Premier Rachel Notley is still reeling from Bill 6, the necessary farm safety bill that nevertheless became highly unpopular in rural Alberta in 2015 and 2016. But it’s very hard to see how this bill is going to help either her government or many of the producers who have to pay check-offs to these groups.

For one thing, it seems likely that what Bill 9 will principally accomplish is further entrenching the largest, most powerful farm producers at the head of these organizations. This is especially true among beef farmers where a few very large feedlots provide most of the revenue for the commission.

What's more, since many producers see significant problems with the way elections are conducted by these organizations, the no-refund approach if ratified will mean that producers who are dissatisfied by the work of the commissions will not have a meaningful alternative to pulling their money.

That's also a problem for the government, it's said here, because so many of these commissions now function practically as auxiliaries of the Wildrose Opposition.

So, while I understand why the NDP is anxious to make some friends in the farm community after the Bill 6 debacle, it's extremely unlikely, a few photo opportunities notwithstanding, that Bill 9 is going to do the trick.

Indeed, there's a strong case they risk helping the opposition with this bill, and using check-offs from farmers who support them to do it.

If the commissions' voting structure isn’t fixed -- farmers who are members of most commissions have to drive miles to a central town to vote -- this problem is likely to continue, or get worse. A simple postal mail-in ballot, on paper, could do the trick. Instead, one commission is talking about on-line voting -- not a good solution in an industry that still has members with dial-up Internet connections! Hundreds of cow-calf producers will have the numbers, but won't have a voting system that allows them to influence the outcome.

Then there is the matter of what these commissions do beyond politicking, which -- as far as I can see as a city boy with only a little stuff on his boots -- is not very much.

Mainly, they "market" products that, once they've passed the farm gate, have no more connection with the people who actually grew or raised them. That can mean some nice marketing trips to exotic locales for commission staff and leaders. Not so much for many farmers, though.

City folks should also be concerned because some of the commissions -- seemingly entranced by the corporate sectors of their industries -- are also pushing to have genetic material turned over to the private sector, and that means genetically modified food will be on your table sooner than later, whether you like it or not.

As went canola -- the oilseed developed with the support of Canadian taxpayers for which growers must now buy genetically modified seed from corporate patent holders -- so may go much else.

Sorry, I don't like annoying agricultural producers any more than the government does, but it would have been smarter and fairer to defund these commissions entirely than to allow them to continue on their current path, especially in a way that likely will strengthen the grip of the people who run them now.

Now, I mentioned that Carlier's news conference was sparsely attended. Regardless of whether or not I'm right about the value to Albertans of the 13 commissions, it's an absolute disgrace that I was literally the only person there with the intention of actually writing about the event. One reporter from an agricultural publication phoned in too.

The members of the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery, who jealously guard their access to politicians in the Legislature, apparently couldn't be bothered!

Agriculture is a $14-billion industry in Alberta if you go by farm gate receipts alone. It may be about all we have left when the second oil price shock hits -- you know, the one that could happen when petroleum demand dips again because of the forecast switch to electric vehicles.

Obviously, agriculture in Alberta deserves serious coverage by people who know what they're talking about.

As yesterday's news conference illustrated, agriculture is another sector of our society and economy that is being failed, and failed badly, by our foundering mainstream media.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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