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Hubert Martel leads Brown Swiss dairy cows in from pasture at the Gosselin family farm in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., on Friday.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Two dozen Brown Swiss cows chomp contentedly at the clover in this pasture 30 minutes southeast of Montreal. The sun warms their chocolate-coloured hides.

"It's a nice, calm cow to deal with," says Marie-Pier Gosselin, whose father owns Au grè des champs, a popular milk farm and cheese maker here. "A no-worries cow."

The Gosselin family might wish to share in their cows' ignorant bliss. Quebec has very few "no-worries" dairy farmers this week.

While the Brown Swiss chewed, they remained the subject of sharp debate and byzantine negotiation at the Westin Maui resort nearly 8,000 kilometres away. That was where senior diplomats and lobbyists were wrangling over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-country trade pact that would provide a $285-billion boost to the participating countries.

Foreign access to Canada's heavily protected dairy industry is said to be a core issue.

Sources close to the discussions, which missed their deadline on Friday, told The Globe and Mail Canada's reluctance to make concessions in its supply management system for milk production is blocking other countries from cutting deals as they wait to see whether the Canadians will budge.

But far from being emboldened by the delays, many in the industry sense that the federal government may be on the verge of trading away a chunk of their prosperity.

While the talks in Hawaii fell short on Friday – a temporary win for the dairy industry – it means the Harper government could be negotiating during an election campaign.

While that might appear to be good news for farmers, letting them use their votes to protect their livelihoods, they are a shadow of the electoral force they once were.

That the negotiations are being held in secret only adds to the sense of foreboding.

Sébastien Robert, who owns a 70-cow farm near the Gosselins, says he checks Facebook for news on the trade deal almost as often as he checks the weather – and he gets weather updates 20 times a day on his iPhone.

"I'm very afraid," he said. "I'm very afraid."

Dairy is big business in Quebec. The legendary soccer striker Didier Drogba signed with the Montreal Impact recently and was introduced to the city's media on Thursday at Saputo Stadium – named for a provincial dairy powerhouse that raked in more than $9-billion in revenue last year.

Almost half of Canada's milk farms are in Quebec, and on average they are smaller than the 77-cow national average.

The province takes that cultural heritage seriously. The shop bathroom at Au grè des champs is adorned with a framed certificate from the National Assembly – official recognition for making a technically difficult kind of raw-milk cheese.

But some producers believe the cozy days of supply management are waning, whatever happens this weekend in Hawaii. Farmers fondly refer to it as "our system," but critics call it a cartel: fixed prices, quotas on production and high tariffs to keep foreign products out.

That means higher prices for consumers, but steady incomes for farmers. The Gosselins recognize the occasional absurdity: They have to sell their milk to the provincial marketing board and buy it back at a premium to make cheese, costing them thousands of dollars a year.

But Daniel Gosselin, Marie-Pier's father, recalls a time before supply management when life was harder and more precarious.

One decades-old protest sticks in his mind: Angry farmers killed calves in public, in part to shock, in part to show how little the animals were worth.

Such dramatic gestures are a thing of the past, Mr. Gosselin believes. He cannot fathom why the Harper government would show such deference to his industry, to the point of jeopardizing a historic free trade deal.

The sector's political power has fallen off dramatically. Canada has about 12,000 dairy farms today, down from about 145,000 in 1971. And they are widely dispersed across the electoral map.

A 2012 report by former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay – a touchstone for critics of the dairy regime – found that just 13 federal ridings contained more than 300 milk farms.

"In terms of political weight, I don't think we have a huge amount," said Mr. Robert, the fifth generation on his family farm in Mont-Saint-Grégoire. "Do you think we control the federal government? Is that what you think in Toronto?"

Industry representatives in Maui could scarcely escape the anxiety in southern Quebec.

Yves Leduc, head of international trade for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, had not found time to visit Hawaii's famed beaches as of Wednesday.

"From this perspective, there are probably better places to be," he said. "We've been pretty busy hanging out in the lobby trying to access information."

Mr. Leduc's weariness was not what might be expected for the emissary of an industry that seems to have held up a multibillion-dollar trade pact.

"Definitely our members, the farmers, are preoccupied," he said. "If we were not worried, we would not be here."

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