Farmers for economic freedom
Updates from the Prairie Centre/Centre for Prairie Agriculture in
web posted March 26, 2001
CWB benchmarking misses the point
By Craig Docksteader
In an attempt to monitor and improve its performance, the Canadian Wheat Board recently announced plans to begin measuring its performance against the open market. The CWB board of directors has established a committee of board members who will oversee the development and implementation of a benchmarking system, and has contracted with a number of well-known academics to carry out the work.
The purpose of the exercise is to find an accurate way of objectively and critically determining whether the CWB is getting the best dollar for farmers. In a recent media interview, CWB Chairman Ken Ritter promised that the CWB would act on the findings and "make changes or do whatever is necessary to ensure the highest values are received by farmers."
But while a benchmarking system may provide some interesting information, its value to producers is questionable. The CWB may have good intentions, but at the end of the day the process will cost prairie producers hundreds of thousands of dollars and do nothing to quell concerns about CWB performance and demands for marketing choices. In fact, to many producers, the whole exercise is quite distasteful and aptly illustrates the paternalistic attitude of the CWB toward farmers.
For years, many prairie grain producers have been struggling to obtain the right to make their own decisions about marketing their grain. And for years, the CWB has fought them with their own money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been taken from pool accounts and spent on legal fees and communications expenses in order to promote and protect the single-desk policy. Time and time again, the CWB has told farmers that a voluntary CWB is not in their best interests. Like a small child receiving a condescending pat on the head and being told to run and play, producers are expected to simply accept what someone else determines is best for them.
Perhaps unwittingly, the CWB is contributing to the caricature of the "dumb farmer". Unable to make their own decisions about marketing, the CWB makes them instead. Unable to determine which marketing system serves them best, the CWB will now determine it for them. Unable to manage their own business to ensure theyre getting the best return for their product, the CWB now promises to "do whatever is necessary to ensure the highest values are received by farmers".
As benevolent as that may sound, the effort will largely be a waste of time and money. Producers who are unhappy with the existing marketing system dont want the CWB doing more studies to try to make them happy. They dont want the CWB spending more money, hiring more academics, putting out more glossy publications and taking out more newspaper ads to tell them how their business will be run for them.
No matter what the outcome of the study, the exercise misses the very
simple point that farmers have repeatedly made for years: The majority
of prairie grain producers dont want someone making their marketing
decisions for them. Theyd like to do it themselves.
web posted March 19, 2001
Winning the cultural war
In February of 1999, Charlton Heston stood before the Harvard Law School Forum and delivered a speech that has taken on a life of its own. Over the last two years, the text of the speech has been widely circulated in the U.S., and is now finding its way into the hands of Canadians. [Read it here]
Entitled, "Winning the Cultural War", Heston, the actor and conservative activist warned about 200 listeners about "a cultural war that's about to hijack your birthright to think and say what resides in your heart." Although the references in Heston's speech pertain to the U.S., the message strikes a chord with many Canadians who read it as well.
Following, are excerpts from the speech that deserve some thoughtful reflection.
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About a year ago I became president of the National Rifle Association, which protects the right to keep and bear arms. I ran for office, I was elected, and now I serve. I serve as a moving target for the media who've called me everything from ridiculous' and duped' to a brain-injured, senile, crazy old man'. I know I'm pretty old, but I sure thank the Lord ain't senile.
As I have stood in the crosshairs of those who target Second Amendment freedoms, I've realized that firearms are not the only issue. No, it's much, much bigger than that. I've come to understand that a cultural war is raging across our land, in which, with Orwellian fervor, certain acceptable thoughts and speech are mandated.
For example, I marched for civil rights with Dr. King in 1963 -- long before Hollywood found it fashionable. But when I told an audience last year that white pride is just as valid as black pride or red pride or anyone else's pride, they called me a racist.
I've worked with brilliantly talented homosexuals all my life. But when I told an audience that gay rights should extend no further than your rights or my rights, I was called a homophobe.
I served in World War II against the Axis powers. But during a speech, when I drew an analogy between singling out innocent Jews and singling out innocent gun owners, I was called an anti-Semite.
From Time magazine to friends and colleagues, they're essentially saying, Chuck, how dare you speak your mind. You are using language not authorized for public consumption!'.
What does all of this mean? It means that telling us what to think has evolved into telling us what to say, so telling us what to do can't be far behind.
But what can you do? How can anyone prevail against such pervasive social subjugation? The answer's been here all along. I learned it 36 years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., standing with Dr. Martin Luther King and two hundred thousand people.
You simply disobey. Peaceably, yes. Respectfully, of course. Nonviolently, absolutely. But when told how to think or what to say or how to behave, we don't. We disobey social protocol that stifles and stigmatizes personal freedom.
When a mugger sues his elderly victim for defending herself, jam the switchboard of the district attorney's office. When your university is pressured to lower standards until 80% of the students graduate with honors, choke the halls of the board of regents. When an 8-year-old boy pecks a girl's cheek on the playground and gets hauled into court for sexual harassment, march on that school and block its doorways. When someone you elected is seduced by political power and betrays you, petition them, oust them, banish them.
If Dr. King were here, I think he would agree.
web posted March 12, 2001
The problem with compulsory pooling
By Craig Docksteader
While browsing through the Canadian Wheat Board's latest edition of "Grain Matters", an interesting statement caught my attention. "It is... important to note that a larger pool size meant that a larger proportion of the total crop had to be sold into lower return markets." Apparently, due to the size of the 1999/2000 wheat crop, the CWB was stuck with having to sell a larger chunk of the crop into cheaper markets. As a result, overall returns to producers were diminished.
The significance of this statement could be easily missed. It is well-known that the CWB exercises what is known as "price discrimination", where it sets different sale prices for different markets. But while producers are often reminded that the CWB claims it can obtain premium prices in a few small, select markets, the other side of the equation is rarely high-lighted. Sometimes the CWB is stuck selling wheat below its optimum market value because it simply doesn't have enough good markets to absorb the quantity grown. Returns from premium markets are then diluted with lower returns from poor markets, resulting in mediocre returns for all producers.
On the prairies, this system is often described as an "equitable" one. It's fair to everyone. Nobody can go out and grab the premium markets for themselves, while leaving the poor markets for someone else. The highs are averaged with the lows, so everyone shares in the strengths and weaknesses of the marketplace.
But while it sounds good in theory, this policy may have done more to hinder economic development on the prairies than any other single factor. While it is virtually impossible to calculate the actual cost of the policy, it has arguably had significant negative implications for prairie agriculture, and indirectly contributed to the severity of the farm crisis faced by many prairie families today.
Consider the example of crop year 1999/2000 mentioned above. Ask yourself, "Whose wheat was sold into the markets with lousy returns?" Would those producers have chosen to grow wheat if they had to accept the lower, unpooled price? No way. They would have grown a different crop, or pursued other sources of farm income such as livestock or value-added activities.
So then why was so much wheat grown which resulted in the CWB having to sell a larger quantity into the lower-priced markets and depress the price for everyone? Simple. The only market price available to producers was the pooled price. Nobody had to face the reality of accepting a lower market return, so nobody knew when it was time to seed something else.
By blurring market signals, compulsory pooling in a single-desk marketing system prevents producers from making informed production decisions. This distorts production outcomes and masks the true impact of bad choices. This results in the misallocation of profits by subsidizing inefficiency, which erodes the accumulation of capital, discourages entrepreneurial risk-taking and innovation, reduces investment in the industry, and diminishes the profitability of farming.
Prairie agriculture is increasingly moving into production contracts. Not the kind the CWB offers, but the kind where the grower is guaranteed a certain price for a crop of a certain grade and characteristics. In this kind of a competitive, commercial marketing system, producers can shop around, and often sell their crop before they seed it. There is no blurring of market signals, risk can be managed, and rewards go to those who earn them.
Under this kind of scenario, the CWB would have a promising future as
a voluntary marketing agency. In its present state, it will continue to
take premiums from the good markets and use them to subsidize the poor
markets. As nice as it may sound in theory, this policy is no friend of
web posted March 5, 2001
The trouble with the trail
By Craig Docksteader
Since its launch in June of 1994, the Trans Canada Trail has attracted a lot of attention. Anticipated to be a recreation trail that will eventually wind its way through every province and territory, it will be the longest trail of its kind in the world, covering approximately 16,000 kilometres. It will accommodate walking, cycling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, linking major centres and thousands of smaller communities.
On the surface, the vision is hard to resist. As one writer puts it, it's a vision of "the perfect Canadian family hiking on the perfect Canadian trail, enjoying the perfect Canadian environment. They are respectful of others and concerned about their environment as they walk across Canada talking to Canadians who live along the trail and are happy to greet them.
But there's a problem. Actual experience in other jurisdictions shows the reality is often much different than the idyllic picture that is portrayed. Especially if the trail goes through your backyard.
In a presentation to a meeting of Mayors and Reeves last October, the Association of Alberta Landowners for the Protection of Agriculture Land (AALPAL) listed a number of incidents which illustrate the growing concerns of thousands of landowners across the prairies whose property is adjacent to the proposed route:
* In England, a hog operation was harassed by trail users and the local government because the smell offends trail users. Another farmer was asked to change his crop because the pollen has a negative impact on hay fever sufferers. A cattle operator was asked to pen his livestock in a different place so trail users were not threatened, and many sheep farmers have had stock killed and mutilated by dogs accompanying trail users.
* In the U.S., many trails have been closed because local police cannot handle the vandalism and increased crime. Litigation by landowners against trail managers and proponents is growing rapidly.
* In Renfrew County, Ontario, after a lengthy battle costing one farmer $20,000, this adjacent landowner was left with all the fencing costs along an abandoned railway.
AALPAL explains that although the concerns are real, the questions of adjacent landowners have not been adequately addressed by proponents of the trail. For example:
* Who will look after the hundreds of miles of fencing along trail acquired from abandoned CPR and CNR track? The railways formerly maintained these fence lines, but since donating the land to the Trans Canada Trail, no new agreement has been reached with landowners.
* Who will build and maintain access across the trail so a farmer can use the separated parts of his land?
* Who is responsible for grass fires started by campers that quickly spread to adjacent land?
* Who is responsible for the livestock damage that occurs when trail users' dogs chase young calves, pregnant cows, or prize bulls?
* What about the depreciation in land values that occurs when a public thoroughfare bisects a farmer's land?
* What about litter that is left on the trail and finds its way onto the adjacent land?
* What about insurance for landowners against property damage? Adjacent landowners in Ontario are finding they cannot get additional insurance to cover these risks.
Surprisingly, in spite of their concerns, many landowners whose property is adjacent to the proposed route are not fundamentally opposed to the concept of the trail. Rather, they're asking that the trail route be contingent on the approval of the affected municipal governments, and that they are assured of adequate protection against any threats to their lifestyle or livelihood.
As primary stakeholders in the trail's development, adjacent landowners
simply want into the loop of decision-making. Hardly an unreasonable request
to make of a trail that considers itself a symbol of Canadian unity.
web posted February 26, 2001
Did I say that?
By Craig Docksteader
It seems like whenever there's a good idea, you can always find plenty of people who think it won't work. But the nay-sayers aren't always right. In fact, as George Bernard Shaw once said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Like every industry, agriculture needs those "unreasonable" people who embrace innovation and forward-thinking. Following are a few quotes to inspire us all to think "outside the box" and look forward to tomorrow with renewed optimism.
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"I think that there is a world market for maybe five computers."
"The concept is interesting... but in order to earn better than
a "C" the idea must be feasible [yours is not.]
"We don't like their sound and guitar music is on the way out."
"With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto
industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the US market."
"There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will
ever be obtainable. It would mean the atom would have to be shattered
"The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert on explosives."
"There will never be a bigger plane built."
"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
"The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered
as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
"There is no reason that anyone would want a computer in their home."
"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who
would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular??
"Radio has no future. Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.
X-rays will prove to be a great hoax."
"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
"But what is it good for?"
"While theoretically and technically television is feasible, commercially
and financially it is an impossibility."
"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked
with the best people, and can assure you that data processing is a fad
that won't last out the year."
"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and
reaction... He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high
"If I'd have thought about it I would never have done the experiment.
The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this."
Craig Docksteader is Coordinator with the Prairie Centre/Centre for
Prairie Agriculture, Inc.
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