Martha and Henry are the two people that Alberta Premier Ralph Klein talks about when he wishes to discuss issues that affect “ordinary Albertans.” This month marks the first anniversary of Martha’s Monthly newsletter and it got Martha thinking about anniversaries — in particular, the anniversary gifts she’s received from Henry over the years. Now, Henry has never been accused of being a romantic guy. He’s more like the Canadian Tire guy with a “tool for every job” instead of the diamond commercial guy who’d show his wife heâe(TM)d “marry her all over again.”

Like a good sport, Martha tries to welcome the toasters, garden tools, and vacuums that honour their vows.

This time around, Henry bought a side of beef. Martha couldn’t have been more proud of him if he had mined a diamond himself. After all, this year their anniversary was the same week as the second anniversary of the “mad cow” scare. Henry’s gift reminded Martha that there’s plenty of “madness” in the Alberta government’s response to the beef crisis.

On May 20, 2003, a single case of BSE was found in Alberta and the U.S. border was slammed shut to live cattle. This year’s anniversary passed with little news coverage. The media have turned to other stories, but cattle producers, truck drivers and rural communities can’t move on. The closed border has devastated their lives.

The Alberta government seems very concerned. Last year, the agriculture minister Shirley McLellan called the border closure the cattle industry’s most “catastrophic event in its 200-year history.”

The government helped cattle producers with funding, loan guarantees and job retraining. But these assistance programs were temporary. Furthermore, the largest bail-out program encouraged cattle producers to slaughter their cattle quickly because the program had an end date.

Before the border closure, 60 per cent of Alberta’s cattle went to the States. So when access to U.S. slaughterhouses was suddenly cut off, we had a crisis: too many cows and nowhere to go.

Now Marthas, there can be too much of a good thing. All the Marthas and Henrys in the country could have bought an extra freezer and filled it with beef and we would still have too much.

With the border closed to live cattle, the only way producers could sell their beef to the U.S. market was through an Alberta meat packing plant. As a result, meat packers in Alberta have done quite well during the BSE crisis. The three big packing plants, which account for 90 per cent of all slaughter activity, increased their profits by 200 per cent. Furthermore, they got more than $45 million in bail-out money from the provincial government. And guess what, Marthas? Two of these companies are American-owned!

In the end, meat packers called the shots and made the money while the cattle producers lost a bundle on virtually worthless cattle. The bail-out programs saved many producers from bankruptcy but did not help producers save the value of their investment.

There was a fundamental problem with the response of the Alberta government to the BSE crisis. The crisis has taught us that relying on the U.S. to slaughter more than half our cattle is a dangerous policy. We need to learn from these mistakes and diversify the meat packing industry.

Martha has listened patiently to Premier Klein wax poetic about the benefits of competition in the electrical industry (though she hasn’t seen the benefits yet). But the premier hasn’t been so eloquent in expanding competition to the meat packing industry.

And lest you think the government is powerless, Martha will remind you that the Alberta government provided $12 million in grants to the three packers between 1987 and 2000. (See Alberta Liberals plan.) The government has so far offered only a feasibility study. We need more than studies. We need a commitment from the Alberta government to invest in cooperative packing plants that are run by producers.

Here’s the letter we plan to send to Premier Klein:

Dear Premier Klein,

We, the Marthas, recognize the devastating impact of the BSE scare and the U.S. border closure on cattle producers in Alberta. We appreciate the efforts of your government to mitigate the financial effects by supporting cattle producers. Unfortunately, millions of dollars have gone to U.S. multinationals and not Alberta’s cattle producers. We think this happened because the largest support program had an end date and forced producers to sell too quickly. More importantly, consolidation in the packing industry has exerted significant control over purchasing prices and since the border closure this consolidation has become a monopoly, as producers were unable to sell their live cattle to anyone else.

We Marthas stand with our neighbours — the 30,000 plus cattle producers of Alberta — in their calls to reopen the U.S. border while diversifying the provincial packing industry.

We call on you to support the work of these producers by offering capital matching programs for producer-run packing plants. We want our tax dollars to go to our cattle producers and not American shareholders. Please do all that is possible to ensure that the slaughter capacity of Alberta is increased, diversified, and home grown.

Please copy the letter to:

Many Marthas get a good response when they copy their message to their MLA. Find your MLA (contact info here.) You could also send your letter to your local newspaper.

Don’t forget to put your name and address on the bottom of the letter.