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Agriculture policy depends on which farmers Ottawa is wooing

The Harper government has never been so conflicted about farmers, particularly now that Ottawa is freeing western wheat and barley producers from the obligation to sell their products through the Canadian Wheat Board.

Are farmers free-market-loving entrepreneurs who need to be liberated from state cartels such as the Wheat Board?

Or should they be heavily regulated through production quotas and price supports and fenced off from foreign competition by high tariff walls? Like dairy farmers, for instance, who were promised this year the Conservatives will "resolutely defend" their sheltered businesses.

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The answer depends, apparently, on which farmers the Harper government is wooing.

On one hand, the Conservatives champion free enterprise for producers of beef, grains and oilseeds such as canola, and seek greater access to foreign consumers during trade talks.

"Entrepreneurial farmers are proving over and over that they can and will help drive our economy if they have control over their farm and over their bottom line," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said as he moved to un-yoke western producers from the Wheat Board on Wednesday.

On the other hand, the Harper government is firmly wedded to a protectionist approach to farmers who produce Canadian milk, eggs or poultry.

Tariffs of more than 200 per cent shelter this supply-managed sector from foreign rivals, and domestic production is limited by a command-and-control approach to the farm economy.

Mr. Harper has long championed dismantling the Wheat Board's monopoly for his western base, but one-time adviser Tom Flanagan says the former Canadian Alliance politician shelved his aversion to supply management years ago when courting rural Ontario votes.

The Conservatives' stout refusal to lower protectionist walls around dairy, egg and poultry farms has already cost it a seat at major trade talks among Pacific Rim nations, according to Lawrence Herman, a lawyer and former Canadian diplomat who is at Cassels Brock & Blackwell in Toronto.

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A spokeswoman for Mr. Ritz said contrasting Ottawa's treatment of different farm groups is "like comparing apples and walnuts." Meagan Murdoch said supply management was created in response to farmer's demands, while the Wheat Board was imposed on western producers during wartime "to ensure cheap wheat to Europe."

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