For some 70 years the Wheat Board has held a monopoly on sales of wheat and barley by farmers in western Canada. Farmers have sold all grain to the board and received common prices, based on an average negotiated by the board on world markets. This has helped exploited farmers in face of competition from capitalist farmers and agribusiness and debt payments to the banks.
But concern for the well-being of working farmers isn’t why Canada’s capitalist rulers have kept the board all these years. It has given Canadian imperialism an edge in markets at home and abroad against U.S. and other grain monopolies.
In the process, Canada’s rulers have pointed to the board as a reason for working farmers to back protectionist measures pitting them against working people in other imperialist countries and oppressed nations the world over.
Canada accounts for 20 percent of world wheat exports, 85 percent of it produced by farmers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Most is exported through the Wheat Board.
The U.S. imperialist government, acting on behalf of owners of U.S.-based agribusiness giants like Cargill, has tried in vain 14 times over two decades to get the World Trade Organization to declare the board an “unfair trade practice.”
Last December, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended the board’s monopoly and fired the farmer-elected members of its board of directors. The new law, set to take effect Aug. 1, says the board must either be privatized or dissolved in five years.
The move comes as the world economic crisis creates greater volatility in the cost of fuel and other expenditures and the price that farmers can fetch for their wheat.
Speaking to the Militant, Manitoba farmer Ian Robson called dissolution of the board “jackboot” legislation. Robson produces wheat, canola and cattle on 900 acres near Deleau, Manitoba, and is a member of the National Farmers Union. Farms in Manitoba average 1,000 acres, the government reports.
If the board goes “it will be more difficult for me to market my grain,” said Robson. “Its marketing staff tracks prices in 70 countries. How can an individual farmer do that?”
The National Farmers Union says net income for many farmers has stagnated for decades at below average production costs. Prices of seed, fertilizer, fuel and machinery have risen, along with onerous bank debt to buy them.
More and more farmers have to rent out land, work a job, or both to avoid foreclosure and keep farming. Some 2,500 of Canada’s 230,000 farms go under each year, swallowed up by banks, realty companies and wealthy farmers.
Abolition of the Wheat Board monopoly will accelerate “the concentration of capital in agriculture at working farmers’ expense,” Howard Brown, who farms 1,900 acres in Saskatchewan, told the Militant. Farms there average about 1,500 acres.
According to a 2011 survey conducted for the Wheat Board, well over 70 percent of farmers with fewer than 2,500 acres want to keep the board (76 percent of those with fewer than 640), but only 47 percent of those with more than 2,500 acres.
Wheat Board’s evolutionThe Wheat Board was set up in 1935, partly as a government concession to farmers’ struggles to ease competition among themselves in face of large grain-handling capitalists. In 1943 Ottawa gave the board a sales monopoly under the War Measures Act to ensure grain to Canada’s imperialist allies in World War II.
Large farmer protests in the mid-1990s pushed back efforts by the Liberal government, agribusiness, and many capitalist farmers to make inroads against the monopoly in barley. In 1998 Ottawa changed the board from a government-run entity to a federally regulated corporation with 10 directors elected by farmers and five appointed by the government. Farmers were supposed to have decisive vote on any major changes.
But Ottawa’s new law was adopted without letting farmers vote. (In a nonbinding vote held by the board in August, 62 percent of wheat farmers and 51 percent of barley farmers backed keeping the monopoly.)
The new law is backed by owners of grain-handling companies in Canada like Richardson and Viterra, as well as of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways. The board’s demise was hailed in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, at the Jan. 4-6 convention of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, an organization, it says, of “progressive farmers and entrepreneurs.”
“It’s a question of principle and economics,” Mike Bast, an Alberta farmer with 2,000 acres and a leader of the association, told the Militant. He said studies show that nine times out of 10 “better contracts could have been achieved on the open market.”
The board’s nonbinding vote in August “was fake,” Bast said. The board sent out 68,000 ballots, “but there are only 15,000 to 20,000 … whose sole income is from farming.” Implying that farmers who rent out land or work jobs to make ends meet shouldn’t have been allowed to vote.
Another Alberta farmer with 1,400 acres, who asked that his name not be used, expressed his opposition to the CWB monopoly. “I’m running a business,” he said. “To be forced to be equal is like being in a communist country. Like being a serf. We are entrepreneurs. We want to grow our business.”
Clashing class interestsThe shift by Canada’s rulers on the Wheat Board shows why working farmers—as they oppose measures like this that worsen living and working conditions on the land—can’t rely on boards or agencies of the capitalist government. It shows why it’s against working people’s interests to support the rulers’ nationalist and protectionist policies that target workers and farmers abroad.
In the absence of organized resistance to Ottawa’s new law today, opposition to it is taking place largely in the courts. The government is appealing a Dec. 7 federal court ruling that it violated the Canadian Wheat Board Act by not holding a farmers’ referendum.
Eliminating the Wheat Board’s guaranteed price for working farmers is one front in efforts by the rulers and their governments to shift the burden of the capitalist crisis onto the backs of “wage slaves” in factories and “debt slaves” on the land.
As the capitalist assault deepens, working farmers need to extend solidarity to workers in Canada, the United States, and the world over standing up to the bosses. And workers need to extend the hand of active support to their exploited fellow toilers on the land.
Annette Kouri contributed to this article.
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