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An Alberta famer harvests his crop of wheat, barley, and canola in October, 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
An Alberta famer harvests his crop of wheat, barley, and canola in October, 2010. (Chris Bolin/Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

'Sky will be the limit,' Tories say in tabling wheat-board overhaul Add to ...

The federal government tabled its long-promised bill Tuesday to end the Canadian Wheat Board's 60-year monopoly on western wheat and barley sales.

The move came despite strong opposition from critics who say the decision will hurt farmers.

“An open market will increase the number of buyers bidding on our wheat and barley,” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said on a farm outside Ottawa. “Unlike what some people may claim, the sky will not fall in an open market. Instead, the sky will be the limit.”

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Western farmers, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the country, have been forced to sell wheat and barley through the board since the 1940s when producers banded together to get better prices. The board is an agency governed by federal law but run by a board of directors, most of whom are elected by farmers. Other directors are appointed by the government.

The Conservatives have long fought to end the monopoly, but were prevented from doing so until they won a majority government last spring.

The issue has divided farmers. Some say they want the right to sell to whomever they choose to get the best possible price. But opponents say without the wheat board monopoly, farmers will compete against each other for sales and prices will drop.

Supporters say the board cannot survive in an open market because it does not own terminals to collect and store grain like private grain companies do.

A group called Friends of The Canadian Wheat Board has already gone to Federal Court asking for a judicial review of the government's plan and wheat board directors have talked about a legal challenge. Under the existing law, any changes have to be approved by producers.

But the bill tabled Tuesday essentially wipes out the requirement for a producer plebiscite and opens up wheat and barley sales to the free market as of the start of the crop year next Aug. 1.

The bill also includes a radical change to the board of directors. Elected members will be removed when the bill becomes law, as early as January.

The remaining directors, made up of government appointees, will develop a five-year transition plan to turn the wheat board into a private company that farmers can choose to continue to use. The wheat board will be wound down if, at the end of the five years, the directors fails to produce a privatization plan that is approved by the minister of agriculture.

Manitoba's NDP government has opposed the changes. The province has the most to lose under the plan, because the wheat board's headquarters in Winnipeg employs hundreds of people. Hundreds of more jobs are on the line at the port of Churchill in northern Manitoba, where wheat board sales make up roughly 85 per cent of all shipments.

Mr. Ritz offered to soothe the pain Tuesday. He admitted the new wheat board is likely to be smaller, but promised $9-million over the next five years to help fund grain shipments through Churchill and to maintain port infrastructure.

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