An important relationship faces a thickening border and attitude

*photo courtesy CTV news

Relationships matter. This might sound like a cliché to some, but that does not make it any less true. Agriculture in Western Canada is dependent on trade. Maintaining our relationships with our partners in other countries is one of the most important things agriculture representatives do, and no relationship is more important than with our colleagues in the U.S. Are farmers and their associations doing enough to foster these relationships?

The U.S. is one of the most important customers for every sector of Western Canadian agriculture, including hog farmers, cattle ranchers, and grain producers. The U.S. is also one of our most important input suppliers. Take for example, hog producers in Manitoba. We ship almost 3.5 million animals to the U.S. every year. Annually, our processors export over $400 million of pork products south. Feed ingredients like soybean meal come north along with supplements important for animal health. This is why every twitch in the U.S. market or public policy change can feel a bit like an earthquake north of the 49th parallel.

Working together to tackle problems that are common to farmers on both sides of the border is basic common sense. It is clear from listening to our friends down south, such as our customers in Iowa or Minnesota, that we are facing similar issues like labour shortages or addressing the cyclical nature of international markets. Both Canadian and U.S. producers are facing uncertainty triggered by the war in Ukraine and ongoing supply chain disruptions caused by the global pandemic. Are there common policy approaches to these common disruptions? Our voices are amplified, and our chances of success strengthened, when we can approach our respective governments with common messages and “asks” that will help stabilize agriculture in both countries.

Modern agricultural production in both Canada and the U.S. is facing growing questions from engaged consumers who are asking “where does my food come from?” Consumer interest can sometimes be seized upon by activists who want to shut down modern agriculture, resulting in drives for non-science-based regulations or restrictive legislation like Proposition 12 in California. How do farmers connect with consumers in a meaningful way that supports sustainable agricultural methods, humane treatment of livestock and facilitates modern agricultural practices that deliver safe, available, and affordable food? How do we engage in a way that dispels myths and misinformation about modern agriculture? There are no quick and easy answers to these questions, but one thing is certain, we will have greater chance of success, and more meaningful and long-term dialog with consumers if farmers in Canada and the U.S. work together.

North American agriculture and food supply chains are deeply integrated. This is good for consumers and farmers on both sides of the border. Agriculture in both Canada and the U.S. is also heavily reliant on open trade with customers outside of our continent. However, both the integrated North American market and our international trade are under threat. Protectionism and economic nationalism are growing around the world. Many countries that have previously been open to the expansion of trade in agriculture and food now have a greater internal focus, which makes trade more difficult. Protectionist pressures are present in Canada and the U.S. as well. Governments’ responses to the global pandemic have made crossing the Canadian and U.S. borders more difficult. It is in the best interest of farmers on both sides of the border that Canadian and U.S. farm groups work together to deliver common messages to our governments on the need to combat growing protectionist trends.

How do farmers and their associations work to enhance collaboration across the border? Once again, relationships matter. Manitoba Pork recently had the opportunity to attend the State Ag and Rural Leaders’ Summit in Boise, Idaho. The summit brought together state and provincial legislators and farm leaders from both sides of the boarder. Manitoba was strongly represented by Agriculture Minister Derek Johnson and the executive team from Manitoba Agriculture. Keystone Agriculture Producers General Manager and Vice-President were in Idaho. Saskatchewan and Ontario legislatures were also represented. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association had delegates in attendance. The summit was a superb opportunity to build relationships and develop the dialog on how rural and agriculture leaders in both countries can work together on our common problems. It would be good if Canadian participation in forums like this grew to include more commodity groups and ministers from across the country.

Canadian agriculture and political leaders have many opportunities for outreach with our U.S. counterparts. Now may be the most important time in decades to develop our relationships and common approaches, given pressures on modern agriculture, given growing protectionism around the world, and given increasing threats to the integrated North American market. Relationships do matter.

Hear Shaun Haney discuss this column with Cam Dahl of Manitoba Pork:

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