The push to end supply management signals waning public support of farming

Over the last few months, the Conservative leadership contest has thrust a highly emotional issue for rural Canada into the spotlight— is supply management worth keeping or not?

If you aren’t aware of the issue, one candidate, Maxime Bernier, is looking to eliminate the system. The rest of the field of candidates have said they support it.

I say it’s a highly emotional issue because there is a clear split between those that think it should remain intact, and those that don’t. Now I’m a dairy farmer, so you can take a wild guess at where I stand on the issue. The vast majority of farmer in the system, want to keep it. But this column isn’t about whether or not the system should continue. Instead this is about whether this discussion, happening in the public eye, is actually just another step to something bigger.

Is this debate really about dairy versus the free market, or is this about government getting out of the business of supporting agriculture altogether? I’d argue the latter.

First of all, we should look to the free market in New Zealand, a country that takes pride in going cold turkey when it comes to government support for agriculture. Nuffield scholar Clair Doan put it very well in a recent article, noting the social license to farm doesn’t exist in some areas of New Zealand. It’s a statement I’ve heard before — that the urban public thinks of farmers as environmental pillagers that are rich and take the natural world around them for granted.

Is that feeling restricted to Auckland, or are we starting to see it bleed to other parts of the world?

One first-generation farmer from England started a lively Twitter conversation the other day, questioning why farmers should be allowed inheritance tax deductions. Farmers generally replied as to reasons why it should be allowed. Non-farmers questioned it. This particular farmer wondered why he wouldn’t see those deductions from assets his parents pass on, simply because they weren’t farmers.

Seeing that, it was strangely timed that an article in Saskatchewan from two months ago was shared again on social media, wondering why farmers in that province were taking 368 million dollars from provincial coffers. It questioned why, in a time of fiscal restraint, were farmers with thousands of acres worth millions, entitled to public money?

The missing road tax on farm fuel was one target in the article, and, in the latest Saskatchewan budget, the tax exemption for gasoline for farms was removed. It’s been a target here in Ontario as well.

I’ve even heard rumblings in the backrooms of Ontario municipalities about this. It usually includes a question around why farmers shouldn’t pay at least some road tax on their diesel, when larger farm equipment is running up and down roads, doing damage that needs to be repaired. How long before coloured diesel has a road tax included, to pay for road graders and fresh gravel in front of busy farm yards?

Even if we have all sorts of reasons why the supports are necessary, is it really out of the question for us to think that cash-strapped governments across the country won’t start looking to axe support programs, including crop insurance, AgriStability, or the farm fuel tax deduction?

And what is our argument in return? That farmers facing the wrath of Mother Nature should be entitled to subsidized insurance when the weather turns? Or that because the majority of fuel is burned in the field we shouldn’t pay for any of the road repairs for the time we do spend going from one farm to another? Do housing developers receive the same benefit when they face delays because of weather? What about the fuel landscaping companies use in their lawnmowers?

To be clear, I think there is real value in many of these supports, but is your reason any better than “because we deserve it”? That isn’t going to cut it in today’s environment.

Instead, I look to the world of animal rights and environmental activism that I’ve followed for some time. It’s a world where activists and companies make incremental demands — more space of laying hens, the elimination of sow gestation crates, or restricted pesticide access. Activists celebrate their achievements for a day, and then move on to demand more restrictions. Pundits and policy makers are doing the same with agriculture support, and our industry needs to be prepared at all levels.

While the merits of supply management are being debated today, the conversation in rural Canada shouldn’t be whether or not the neighbours deserve the protection of tariffs. The conversation needs to be how we stop the bleeding of our public support, before more of the ag industry gets thrown to the wolves.

Andrew joined Kelvin Heppner on RealAg Radio to discuss this topic of maintaining public/gov’t support for farming:

Wake up with RealAgriculture

Subscribe to our daily newsletters to keep you up-to-date with our latest coverage every morning.

Wake up with RealAgriculture