Maintaining cross-border trucking and rebuilding beef herd top priorities for Manitoba’s new agriculture minister

Manitoba’s Minister of Agriculture, Derek Johnson, at the swearing in ceremony held January 18, 2022. (Manitoba Government/YouTube screenshot)

Manitoba’s new agriculture minister says helping producers recover from the drought of 2021 and maintaining cross-border movement of feed and the province’s agricultural exports are top priorities as he settles into the minister’s office.

Derek Johnson was sworn in as Manitoba’s minister of agriculture last week, as the province’s new premier, Heather Stefanson, appointed her first cabinet. Johnson replaces Ralph Eichler, who was not given a cabinet post by Stefanson.

While Eichler was well-known and respected in Manitoba’s agriculture community, Johnson is a less familiar political figure when it comes to the agriculture file.

That being said, he has deep roots in the rural Interlake-Gimli riding that he represents, having grown up on a farm near Oak Point on the east side of Lake Manitoba (Interlake-Gimli covers most of the area between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg). Johnson served as a councillor for the Rural Municipality of St. Laurent from 2010-2014 and has represented his riding at the provincial legislature since 2016 when the PC Party formed government.

As he explains in the interview below, the flood of 2011 — when the NDP government of the day diverted water from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba to protect Winnipeg and other downstream communities while flooding thousands of acres of farm and grazing land around the lake — was one of the main reasons he entered provincial politics.

“I wasn’t necessarily pleased with how that was handled at the time, and that’s kind of what spurred me to become an MLA,” says Johnson. “I wanted to bring the farmers’ voices forward at that time, those that were flooded out and in my opinion, had not been properly compensated.”

Fast forward a decade, and livestock producers in Johnson’s riding — and the rest of Western Canada — are dealing with severe drought, and rolling out the AgriRecovery programs the province has announced to help livestock producers rebuild their herds is the first task Johnson mentions when asked about his to-do list.

“The program is helping with the feed shortage and hauling cattle around, but the next step, the last piece of the puzzle is for rebuilding the herd. That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on in the immediate future, to ensure we don’t lose that volume of cattle out of the province on a permanent basis,” he says.

As of Friday, Johnson’s staff was working on lining up an initial call with his federal counterpart, Marie-Claude Bibeau, early this week. He says he plans to raise concerns about maintaining cross-border trade, as the number of truck drivers eligible to cross the border has been reduced by new vaccination mandates from both the Canadian and U.S. governments.

“There’s a series of issues, and of course right now, just with getting feed in and our produce out, you’re obviously aware of some of the issues at the border with trucking,” says Johnson. “We as a province support mandatory testing to keep COVID under control, that’s a reality, but we need to ensure our products and produce keep flowing both ways through the border. That’s probably one of the main topics of the conversation.”

When asked whether he would urge the federal government to remove the vaccination requirement for cross-border truck drivers, Johnson says he would advocate for “ensuring it’s safe and ensuring people are tested so people can cross the border safely.”

Johnson, who previously served as minister of municipal relations, says the province also remains committed to fully removing education taxes from property tax bills. After introducing a 25 per cent rebate last year, he says they’re currently working through the budgeting process to determine whether the province will be able to increase the rebate by another 25 per cent this year.

You can listen to Minister Johnson discuss his priorities, drought recovery, cross-border trucking, carbon taxes, and much more in this conversation:

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