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Canada Opposition leaders woo farmers with support for dairy supply management

Dairy farmer Jvo Thum milks his cows at his farm in Granby, Quebec July 26, 2015.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

The lowing of Holstein cows vied with the sharper sound of political oration last week at an agricultural fair an hour east of Montreal.

Campaign stomping ground may be an unlikely role for the farm expo, but at the start of a federal election season in which the dairy industry stands to figure prominently, several party leaders have veered off the beaten path to visit Saint-Hyacinthe.

With the Conservative government now appearing likely to make concessions around milk imports in a prospective Pacific Rim trade deal, the opposition parties are taking the unusual step of campaigning on their support for supply management, the system of quotas, fixed prices and tariffs that governs Canada's dairy supply.

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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe both came here in the space of a few days to cuddle goats, taste local cheese and promise to defend farmers. Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau, who is campaigning for the Bloc, also paid a visit.

"We will fight tooth and nail to preserve supply management," Mr. Mulcair said. "I've asked the Conservatives to protect our farmers and to take the system off the negotiating table, and they have refused. That's completely irresponsible on their part."

Although dairy producers have much less political clout than they used to, a result of their shrinking numbers, they are still powerful enough in rural Quebec and Ontario to attract the attention of opposition parties. There are 44 ridings in those provinces where the Dairy Farmers of Canada say the industry has a significant footprint. By the organization's calculations, each of these seats has at least 45 dairy farmers, employs at least 200 people and makes an economic contribution in excess of $35-million a year.

The fact that the Conservatives seem to be wavering in their support for a protected dairy market also gives their opponents a rare opportunity to make hay with farmers.

"It's never come up as a serious electoral issue," said Peter McKenna, professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. "There has been this general consensus around protection and maintenance and sustainability of supply management. So all the parties have essentially been on the same page."

That consensus seems to be showing chinks, with the Conservatives having made concessions around cheese imports in the Canada-European Union trade deal and now seeming ready to do the same to secure Canada's place in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Farmers in Saint-Hyacinthe were keeping close track of which politicians came to court them last week. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was one notable absence.

"Maybe he has other things on his agenda," said Simon Giard, a local dairy producer, with a glint of irony in his voice.

But Mr. Trudeau has publicly backed supply management, too, and said so on Saturday in rural Maxville, Ont. The system has "worked for years," he insisted. "We've managed to sign large trade deals in the past, from NAFTA to Canada-Europe and others without having to put supply management into the bargain."

Despite calls to pivot the industry toward exports and find efficiencies through bigger firms, many milk producers say they have no backup plan if supply management ends. The harsh Canadian climate, an age-old way of life and sheer stubbornness are among the reasons many farmers are pinning their hopes on a political saviour, rather than turning their minds to a future with freer markets.

"There is no Plan B," said a senior source with the lobby group Dairy Farmers of Canada, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. "It's not denial.… Supply management will stay in Canada."

But some farmers in Quebec concede that what they fondly call "our system" may not be long for this world. Students of the industry in Europe and the United States, they are well aware that Canada is the last country to manage its dairy industry so thoroughly. Many live in hope of squeezing another prosperous decade or so out of the current supply regime, rather than changing course.

"What we're saying amongst ourselves is that it will fall – but there's nothing written in stone. It could take 10, 15 years," said Michel Lussier, a farmer displaying his best cows at the fair here.

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Others insist that planning for change is futile. A free market in dairy would kill their farms, they say, so lobbying politicians is their only recourse.

"What kind of plan would we have?" said Mr. Giard, the farmer. "We have a winter – it's impossible to compete with the United States."

He pointed to higher production costs related to maintaining and heating buildings and feeding animals from fall to spring. Like many in the industry, he is full of horror stories about estates in California that boast thousands of cows and weather so nice the barns don't have walls.

Others, like Mr. Lussier, value the independence that family farming affords, and recoil from the thought of working for a large conglomerate. "On est boss chez nous," he said, echoing the Quebec sovereigntist slogan "Maîtres chez nous," or masters in our own house.

As trade negotiations continue and the election campaign heats up, dairy farmers here find themselves stuck between pessimism about the industry's future and a reluctance to change their ways. In the meantime, they remain hopeful that politics will bail them out once again. Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Duceppe, and Mr. Trudeau appear eager to oblige.

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