The Minister of Agriculture had very little positive news for the Pemberton farming community during a town meeting Monday.
Starting with the news that the recent Word Trade Organization talks pertaining to agricultural subsidies and market expansion had been scrapped, Chuck Strahl ran down a list of concerns well known to farmers.
“The G6 were unable to come to consensus,” said Strahl who had been at the talks in Geneva. “This is disappointing for the community.”
“This is a travesty for developing countries who need a trading regime they understand and can count on. These countries aren’t big enough to have useful bi-lateral agreements.”
Strahl, Member of Parliament for Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, blamed extravagant U.S. subsidies and Europe’s closed markets for Canada’s inability to expand its agricultural sector. He noted that an $8 billion U.S. corn subsidy makes it impossible for Canadian farmers to compete with their American counterparts when it comes to growing this commodity. Likewise subjective, market access restrictions in Europe often verge of the ludicrous, one such example was the case of not allowing in bananas with “too much curve.”
Nigel Protter, a local proponent of alternative energy, asked about the impact bio-fuel production will have on agriculture.
“We made a commitment to have five per cent bio fuels by 2010,” said the MP of his Conservative government. “Currently, we use .5 per cent.”
The MP cautioned that bio fuel production, while a potential secondary market should not be considered, a panacea for farmers.
“Ethanol plants in the U.S. are subsidized at 30 cents a litre,” explained Strahl.
“Canadians on the border will be building plants that will be shipping to the U.S. to take advantage of the subsidy… Overall, it will help farmers. It has to do.”
He said the challenge is making sure farmers, and not just big oil companies, get in on the ground floor.
As for the day-to-day operations of small farms, Strahl said that an additional $1.4 billion had been added to his budget this year to allow for farmers to research alternative options and technology. He also made it clear that his ministry will not assist farmers in securing capital assets or enter partnerships with farmers.
Strahl suggested that farmers really have to consider developing value-added products.
“What kind of value added can we do in Pemberton? We’re a small, isolated community. We have ideas, but no money,” said Roxy Kearns, a soil analyst and farmer.
The concept of building a slaughterhouse in the Pemberton Valley was discussed. However, Strahl said it would be unlikely the government would get involved in such an endeavour as B.C. was already at capacity. He also went on to describe how such a system needs to be a closed circle in terms of waste management, an expensive undertaking for a small operation.
Strahl conceded that the Pemberton market may always be niche, focusing on organics and seed potato production.
Kearns was also critical of federal programs designed to assist farmers that simply don’t work in the valley, for example crop insurance.
“It doesn’t work well for seed potatoes. If you have a disaster you have to destroy crop (to be eligible for insurance). If we lose first generation, we’re out of business for three years. If we have a flood, we’re out there digging up plants. Money doesn’t help.”
The MP had little solid to offer the assembled members of Pemberton’s farming community, suggesting that farmers need to work off the farm at least part-time.
“People can often do more than farming. Some farmers log part-time, part of the time they do eco-tourism… you find a balance that’s right for you. In Canada, statistically, most farmers also work off farm. That’s even the big farms. The spouse may work as a schoolteacher or part-time. Overall it all averages out, but they don’t make a living from just the farm.”
Asked what are the logical next steps, Strahl said its time for the government to develop a new strategy.
“Now that the WTO has gone south, we’re going to have to sit down as a government and strategize what to do next.”