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The latest in a flurry of federal government pre-budget announcements is a $1-billion pledge to help Canadian farmers who are struggling to cope with rising production costs and to rebound from a string of natural disasters.

"Canadian farmers deserve an ally in Ottawa and that's what they have in Canada's new government," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday to the applause of hand-picked farmers in making the announcement on a grain farm just outside Saskatoon.

"We're kind of determined that this won't just get buried as yet another budget announcement," he said. "We want to make sure that farmers across the country - particularly across the West - are aware of the things we're doing for agriculture."

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The promise includes $600-million to set up what federal officials described as a more responsive savings account program that would replace the existing and much-maligned Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program.

Ottawa would also immediately distribute an additional $400-million to the country's estimated 200,000 to 250,000 farmers to help them recover from the past four years of rising prices for fuel, fertilizer, pesticide and other supplies.

That immediate injection of funds would be taken from the 2006-2007 surplus as part of the Conservative government's long-standing promise not to have windfalls left over after March 31.

But Mr. Harper also committed to earmark another $100-million annually to aid in production costs, which have risen more than three times faster than product prices.

However, yesterday's announcement depends on whether his minority government's March 19 budget passes and the provinces agree to change the income-stabilization program.

"I urge the opposition parties to think about farms in determining how to vote on that budget," Mr. Harper said.

Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said he wants to see more details of what the plan would mean for the average farmer, but commended the initiative.

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"It's very good news for farmers who are coming out of the worst four years in income in their history," he said.

But outside the Saskatchewan farm, a collection of farmers stood on the road holding signs to show their opposition to the federal government and support for the Canadian Wheat Board, which the Tories are taking steps to dismantle to give farmers a choice in marketing.

Nettie Wiebe, who farms grain and cattle in nearby Delisle, Sask., and is a failed New Democratic Party politician, called the announcement a "blatant attempt" to buy votes from a government that she said doesn't respect farmers. "There's a lot of money there, but it's unclear who it would benefit."

Saskatchewan organic farmer David Orchard, who ran twice for the federal Progressive Conservative leadership before switching to the Liberals, said the funding amounts to "peanuts."

"They're destroying the Canadian Wheat Board, which will cost farmers $1-billion a year." Although the provinces were caught off guard by the announcement, federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl, who is now shopping the proposal around, said his counterparts have been receptive.

"Canadian farmers have a friend in Stephen Harper. I can promise you that. I see it every day at the cabinet table," he said yesterday.

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While there has been talk of a spring election if the budget does not pass, Mr. Harper has been travelling the country making funding announcements. This week, he stood beside Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to announce cash for public transit and then he met with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to offer money for climate-change initiatives.

When asked yesterday why Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert was not on hand, Mr. Harper pointed out that this was a national, not federal-provincial program.

He also said joint initiatives are being discussed - and signed - with a number of provinces, but Ottawa hasn't come to an agreement with Saskatchewan on several issues, including climate change and patient waiting-time guarantees.

Mr. Calvert, who has been fighting Ottawa on changes to the equalization-funding formula, was not impressed with the Prime Minister's comments.

Mr. Calvert said the environmental funding is something the province had already agreed to with the previous Liberal government.

"This is not a congeniality contest we are involved in here - it is doing right for the people of Saskatchewan," Mr. Calvert told reporters in Saskatoon.

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"I tell you what - the people of Saskatchewan are going to stand up for what is right for the people of Saskatchewan and so will I as their Premier."

Mr. Harper wouldn't divulge the contents of the federal budget in terms of equalization, but said Mr. Calvert should be pleased.

"I'm confident we will fulfill our commitment and Saskatchewan will be a big winner. Whether it will be enough for the NDP is another question," he said to laughter. With a report from Canadian Press

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