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The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) building is shown in Winnipeg on Wednesday, December 7, 2011. (Trevor Hagan/CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) building is shown in Winnipeg on Wednesday, December 7, 2011. (Trevor Hagan/CANADIAN PRESS)

Agriculture

Cloud of uncertainty hangs over grain farmers Add to ...

Usually at this time of year, Don Connick starts figuring out what crops to grow on his Saskatchewan farm next spring, and he goes over variables like costs, weather and commodity prices. But this year he’s facing a new variable that has ground his planning to a halt – the future of the Canadian Wheat Board.

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“There’s just this real cloud of uncertainty,” Mr. Connick said from his 1,600-acre farm near Gull Lake, in southwestern Saskatchewan. “Even in normal times it’s difficult to plan crops. But this adds another great big humungous variable and makes it doubly or triply more difficult.”

Late Thursday the federal government received royal assent for Bill C-18, a law that ends the Wheat Board’s 76-year monopoly over the sale of wheat and barley grown in Western Canada. In theory, that means farmers will market their own grain next year, either through private companies like U.S. grain giant Bunge Ltd., or a reconstituted Wheat Board that will still operate in some fashion with government backing for five years.

But even that isn’t certain because of a series of legal challenges and a recent ruling by a federal court judge who said the government must hold a vote among farmers before dismantling the board. That decision is under appeal, but if the ruling stands it could delay or derail the implementation of the government’s new law.

Just how bizarre the world has become for farmers was illustrated Friday in a Winnipeg court. Earlier this week, a group of eight farmer-elected directors of the Wheat Board announced plans to file a motion in Manitoba’s provincial court asking for an injunction to block the implementation of Bill C-18 until all the legal issues are resolved. But when the motion came before the court Friday, Bill C-18 had become law and those eight directors had been dismissed. The remaining five directors, all government appointees, promptly moved to withdraw the motion. However, the former directors pressed on as individuals and the case continued.

The bigger issue for farmers is how to sell their grain next year.

On Friday, Ian White, the chief executive of the Wheat Board, said the agency plans to continue offering contracts to farmers for their wheat. “The CWB has been preparing for this change for many months, developing both pool and cash programs for farmers for the upcoming crop year,” Mr. White said in a statement. “Amid all the change, one thing remains the same: The CWB will market farmers’ grain. We will work to achieve the best prices for farmers and superior service for customers in Canada and around the world.”

But private companies also started offering contracts Friday. “Starting today, Viterra is pleased to offer bids to Western Canadian wheat, durum and barley producers,” said Mayo Schmidt, CEO of Viterra Inc., a Calgary-based grain handling company.

Farmers will now have to decide which way to go. And they’ll have to do it knowing that everything could change again depending on the various lawsuits.

The confusion has left many farmers unclear about who to turn to and whether everything will change again depending on a new court ruling.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was adamant Friday that Bill C-18 is now law and that farmers have a clear choice. They can sell grain themselves, similar to how many now sell canola and other crops, or they can choose to use the Wheat Board, which will be able to broaden its mandate and market other crops.

But just what the Wheat Board will do remains uncertain, and Mr. Ritz said the five government-appointed directors will be meeting soon to reorganize the agency. “Certainly there’ll be no wholesale layoff of people at the Wheat Board,” he told reporters. “As the appointed directors, the five meet, they will consider what they will need to move forward, and make adjustments accordingly.”

Mr. Ritz also dismissed the latest court action by the former farmer-elected directors, saying that with C-18 now law there is no going back. “I think they will find that they no longer represent the Canadian Wheat Board or Western Canadian farmers,” he said. Those directors are “now on winter vacation.”

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