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Agriculture Minister Gery Ritz stands on Parliament Hill on Thursday.

Dave Chan

The man who's about to shake up the ground rules for 70,000 western Canadian grain growers believes that all farmers should be masters of their own destiny, free to choose how they sell the fruits of their labour.

However, Gerry Ritz's farmer-knows-best philosophy also means that elsewhere in Canada, producers are still free to wall themselves off from competition in the sheltered dairy and poultry businesses.

Mr. Ritz, the federal Agriculture Minister and a former grain grower from Saskatchewan, is bringing an emotionally charged battle over the 76-year-old Canadian Wheat Board to the country's farming heartland.

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He's hitting the road again – as he has since May – for meetings in western provinces to defend and explain changes the Harper government is making that will free wheat and barley farmers from the obligation to sell through the board for the first time since the Second World War.

The wheat board's defenders warn these controversial changes will leave farmers to fend for themselves and consign a Prairie institution to the margins of the business – an organization that through massive sales volume helped build Canada's reputation as a grain powerhouse.

Mr. Ritz, 60, said farmers are ready to take matters into their own hands, noting they've long marketed products such as canola by themselves and don't need an agency that dictates and interferes in their lives.

"It's beyond Big Brother. It is the Nightmare on Elm Street on every farm across Western Canada," he said of the wheat board. He hastened to add that "some farmers feel comfortable in those constraints, having someone else do the marketing for them."

But even as Conservatives prepare to liberate western farmers in the name of "marketing freedom," – they refuse to reform the heavily regulated and sheltered dairy, egg and poultry industries, which have a major presence in Central Canada.

Mr. Ritz understands risk, having tried his hand at raising ostriches before entering politics. At one point, he and a partner had about 800 of the flightless African birds that can be sold for their meat or leather.

"I got some tremendously expensive boots, but boy, they're beautiful," he recalls.

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The witty quip is standard Ritz, colleagues say: a congenial way of negotiating conversations with everyone from farmers to reporters.

The minister doesn't recommend the exotic ostrich business for everyone. "We were in that situation where we had too much for a local market and not enough for an export market."

Nevertheless, it was an example of farmers making their own decisions, Mr. Ritz says.

The Harper government needs to introduce even more free-market thinking in a changing world, agriculture and trade experts say.

They warn that Canada's share of export markets for food is shrinking on many counts, and say the country needs to open up the dairy and poultry markets to win more access abroad. Hefty tariff walls protect these sectors from significant foreign competition, and production is limited by a command-and-control approach that sets prices and output.

John Weekes, Canada's chief negotiator for the North American free trade agreement, warns that this country's unyielding protection of its dairy and poultry farmers is becoming a major obstacle to wringing better concessions from trade talks.

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"Increasingly, I think, our supply management policies ... hamper our ability to be able to negotiate trade agreements."

Mr. Ritz rejects this, noting Canada negotiated a trade agreement with Switzerland, a big dairy producer, and that, regardless of supply management, the European Union sells far more dairy products to Canada than vice versa. "So how is our system a problem for them?"

Mr. Ritz said there's a benefit for dairy farmers in the managed Canadian system where prices are set ahead of time – and it's not one that the Canadian Wheat Board offered grain farmers. "The setting of your price guarantees you a profit."

Mr. Weekes, who also served as ambassador to the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, said Canada's resolute defence of supply management appears to have cost it a seat at major Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks between the United States and eight partners.

"The United States is saying they are now focused on [the trans-Pacific talks] as their key trade negotiations objective and they're talking about this as the new gold standard for trade agreements," Mr. Weekes said.

"If it does become the new gold standard, we don't want to have other countries such as Australia and New Zealand having better access to the U.S. market than we have under Nafta."

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Mr. Ritz said U.S. farmers, for instance, envy the stability of Canada's dairy and poultry system.

"At the same time the Americans are slagging our supply-managed system, farmers down there are saying 'Boy, we like the way that works.' ... We've got stability. We don't have to wait for government largesse.' "

He noted the Americans approved $450-million (U.S.) last year to backstop their dairy industry.

How much did Ottawa spend on backstopping Canadian dairy farmers?

"Zip," Mr. Ritz said.

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