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The upturned pitchfork has long been a symbol of angry mobs and revolt. It's telling, then, that Quebec farmers are using the pitchfork as the centrepiece of a new ad campaign to rally support for the system that tightly regulates dairy and chicken production in Canada.

"The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations threaten supply management," reads a full-page ad from l'Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA) that appeared in Quebec newspaper Le Devoir last week. "Join forces to defend it."

It's a distinctly unsubtle message to the Conservative government, which is negotiating Canada's entry into the proposed 12-country trade agreement: Expect a nasty fight in Quebec if you bend on supply management.

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The Canadian system that tightly controls the price and output of many farm products has become a key target of the United States, Australia and New Zealand in the TPP negotiations.

Ottawa has stated repeatedly it would defend the regime, which depends on a wall of steep tariffs to keep out foreign products and strict allocation of output inside the country.

But negotiations are unpredictable, and Quebec farmers are not taking anything for granted.

The dairy industry is heavily concentrated in Quebec and Ontario, which together produce roughly 70 per cent of the country's milk. Quebec is home to half of the country's nearly 12,000 dairy farms (5,894) and collects 37 per cent of dairy-farm revenues.

The statistics suggest the industry's political clout should be fading. As recently as 1970, there were more than 120,000 dairy farms in Canada. By 2000, that number had dwindled to fewer than 20,000. Every year, several hundred more disappear as farmers leave the business and sell out.

Across Canada, there are just 13 federal ridings with more than 300 dairy farms, eight of which are in Quebec, according to a 2012 study by former Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay, a fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

Vastly more Canadians are employed in sectors that would stand to gain from the dismantling of supply management, including 210,000 trade-dependent farmers, 22,000 in dairy processing and one million-plus in the restaurant industry, Ms. Hall Findlay argued.

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But the industry's lobbying clout has never been just about numbers. Rightly or wrongly, dairy and chicken farmers have become a potent symbol of rural Canada and, in Quebec's case, economic sovereignty.

The UPA's anti-TPP ad stresses that Quebec's milk, egg and chicken farmers deliver high-quality, homegrown food at "reasonable prices."

The Dairy Farmers of Canada is taking a subtler approach to defending supply management. Last week, it launched the awkwardly labelled "Milkle-Down Effect" PR effort, touting the billions of dollars the industry spends in communities across the country.

Political support for the industry is well funded, strong and easily mobilized.

A year ago, the House of Commons voted unanimously to urge the government to "respect its promise" to shield the dairy industry from any fallout from the Canada-Europe free-trade deal. The vote had echoes of a similar 2005 motion, when 100 per cent of MPs stood up in the Commons to express unwavering support for supply management in global trade talks.

The Quebec and Ontario governments appear to be taking a common front in the TPP talks, pressuring Ottawa not to bend on supply management. Pierre Paradis, Quebec's Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and Jeff Leal, Ontario's Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, recently sought assurances from Ottawa on the TPP.

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The key question is whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper would do anything to anger the pitchfork crowd before the next federal election, set for Oct. 19.

Don't bet on it.

The Conservatives are in a tight three-way race with the NDP and the Liberals. In recent weeks, the government has shown an uncharacteristic propensity to bow to the opposition on key issues, most recently opening the door to an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan.

So it's not likely that Mr. Harper would defy an industry that is flexing its political muscles. That could mean saying no to the TPP, at least until after the election.

The pitchfork is a reminder that farmers are ready to head to the barricades for supply management, as they have done many times before.

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