PHOTOS: Alberta Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier with some of the members, staff and leaders of the province’s agricultural commissions at a sparsely attended news conference in Edmonton yesterday to announce the Marketing of Agricultural Products Amendment Act 2017. Below: Mr. Carlier, at left, chats with Alberta Beef Producers Chair Bob Lowe, far right, in a Government of Alberta shot. Also visible, Tom Lynch-Staunton, behind at left, and Roland Cailliau, both also from the ABP.

Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier, flanked by members of Alberta’s 13 agricultural commissions, announced legislation yesterday that will allow the organizations to choose which dues check-off model they want to use to charge producers for the services they provide.

At an extremely sparsely attended news conference in the Legislature Building’s media room yesterday, Mr. Carlier described the changes introduced with Bill 9, the Marketing of Agricultural Products Amendment Act 2017, as “supporting agricultural commissions by giving producers more autonomy to choose which service-charge model works best for their industry.”

Boiled down, the amendment means the various check-off commissions – whose members produce beef, barley, honey, canola, elk, lamb, oats, forage seed, pork, wheat, alfalfa, spuds and peas and beans, the latter two being one category, in case you were counting – can decide if their dues are refundable or non-refundable.

That’s important because under the act with much the same name passed by the Progressive Conservative government of premier Ed Stelmach in 2009, all commission charges were fully refundable if a producer, say a big feedlot that had been paying $2 for every head of cattle that passed through its gates, felt like filing the paperwork. So producers had to pay but, at the end of the year, they had the opportunity to un-pay.

Alberta was the only Canadian province that did things that way, supposedly to let producers express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their commission, in which their membership is compulsory if they sell that commodity.

Now – if the commission can win a plebiscite to go to a non-refundable model, rules to be decided later – dissatisfied members will in theory have the opportunity to vote in a new executive instead.

But this is the not really end of the story, and what remains is important, even to city folks.

Yes, the government of Premier Rachel Notley is still reeling from Bill 6, the necessary farm safety bill that nevertheless became highly unpopular in rural Alberta in 2015 and 2016. But it’s very hard to see how this bill is going to help either her government or many of the producers who have to pay check-offs to these groups.

For one thing, it seems likely that what Bill 9 will principally accomplish is further entrenching the largest, most powerful farm producers at the head of these organizations. This is especially true among beef farmers where a few very large feedlots provide most of the revenue for the commission..

What’s more, since many producers see significant problems with the way elections are conducted by these organizations, the no-refund approach if ratified would mean producers who are dissatisfied by the work of the commissions will not have a meaningful alternative to pulling their money.

That’s also a problem for the government, it’s said here, because so many of these commissions now function practically as auxiliaries of the Wildrose Opposition.

So, while I understand why the NDP is anxious to make some friends in the farm community after the Bill 6 debacle, it’s extremely unlikely, a few photo opportunities notwithstanding, that Bill 9 is going to do the trick.

Indeed, there’s a strong case the NDP risks helping the opposition with this bill, and using check-offs from farmers who support them to do it.

If the commissions’ voting structure isn’t fixed – farmers who are members of most commissions have to drive miles to a central town to vote – this problem is likely to continue, or get worse. A simple postal mail-in ballot, on paper, could do the trick. Instead, one commission is talking about on-line voting – not a good solution in an industry that still has members with dial-up Internet connections! Hundreds of cow-calf producers will have the numbers, but won’t have a voting system that allows them to influence the outcome.

Then there is the matter of what these commissions do beyond politicking, which – as far as I can see as a city boy with only a little stuff on his boots – is not very much.

Mainly, they “market” products that, once they’ve passed the farm gate, have no more connection with the people who actually grew or raised them. That can mean some nice marketing trips to exotic locales for commission staff and leaders. Not so much for many farmers, though.

City folks should also be concerned because some of the commissions – seemingly entranced by the corporate sectors of their industries – are also pushing to have genetic material turned over to the private sector, and that means genetically modified food will be on your table sooner than later, whether you like it or not.

As went canola – the oilseed developed with the support of Canadian taxpayers for which growers must now buy genetically modified seed from corporate patent holders – so may go much else.

Sorry, I don’t like annoying agricultural producers any more than the government does, but it would have been smarter and fairer to defund these commissions entirely than to allow them to continue on their current path, especially in a way that likely will strengthen the grip of the people who run them now.

Now, I mentioned that Mr. Carlier’s news conference was sparsely attended. Regardless of whether or not I’m right about the value to Albertans of the 13 commissions, it’s an absolute disgrace that I was literally the only person there with the intention of actually writing about the event. One reporter from an agricultural publication phoned in too.

The members of the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery, who jealously guard their access to politicians in the Legislature, apparently couldn’t be bothered!

Agriculture is a $14-billion industry in Alberta if you go by farm gate receipts alone. It may be about all we have left when the second oil price shock hits – you know, the one that could happen when petroleum demand dips again because of the forecast switch to electric vehicles.

Obviously, agriculture in Alberta deserves serious coverage by people who know what they’re talking about.

As yesterday’s news conference illustrated, agriculture is another sector of our society and economy that is being failed, and failed badly, by our foundering mainstream media.

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  1. Sounds very much like our government is buying votes by catering to the old boys club and the WRP. The commissions ceased being about the actual producers 3 hours after created. This does not sync with my NDP values.

    1. Actually I know very little about the agriculture industry other than it hovers around 1.3% to 1.6% of Alberta’s GDP. Every industry has to have consumers to make it a viable business- genetically altered or antibiotics are no longer welcome on most people’s tables and as was seen with the “organic beef” issue there were not enough producers in Canada to supply before there was a public outcry. So with any commodity it will have to be competitive. Hopefully the people most affected by the competitiveness of the product will make the best decisions. So at this point the move makes perfect sense to me.The press on the other hand look very biased in their reporting maybe good news doesn’t sell.

      1. I don’t think the poor sales potential of good news is the issue with agriculture coverage. The problems from a journalistic perspective are that while the industry is big, the component parts are mostly relatively small, there is no unanimity of opinion, and the issues are often exceedingly complicated and quite hard to understand, all of which make it a complicated and time consuming topic to cover. For an industry (news distribution, that is) with a broken business model and a Tweet mentality, it is just too complicated for them, no matter how many billions of dollars are involved. DJC

    2. doesn’t seems like catering to the old boys club and the WRP, rather an attempt to compete with those for the sympathy of big agro-corporations.
      pretty much like these present flirting with provincial big oil.
      perhaps that’s what happens when one formed government from rookies with plenty of ambitions but zero knowledge, experience and guts to manage province with economic weight of Alberta.

      1. this is a bit rich Val….coming after the 44 years of conservative rule. Where apparently career politicians with 0 ambition but 100% knowledge and information, set up the check off commissions, AND gave the AER to the big energy companies, expecting, that Big Oil would regulate itself. A genuinely stupid idea, and there’s lots of evidence on the ground to back up that claim.

        Hard to imagine a people’s government ‘doing worse’…but it is true there’s lots of crappola to dig through, and I’m sure many surprises for new MLAs. It will take time to learn all the ropes and loop holes, more time to fix some of the messes.

        But I think we should beware of an implied elitism which suggests only old white men, well connected to Big Business…know how to govern. Our much vaunted “Alberta Advantage’ seems to me to have boiled down to pricy oil, and self congratulatory illusions.

        Our tax dollars went to things like these commissions…and I fear much of our oil bonanza just went south. Insulting the people who’ve been elected to fix a lot of these messes doesn’t help. Besides, there is plenty of real expertise and ability in our legislature….as there were a few high school drop outs on the conservative benches of yore.

        Democracy means….the people. We should have more faith in it.

  2. Great post David! You make a big complex subject easy to follow. Watching the Commissions constantly work against the interests they’re supposed to represent has been a long exercise in frustration. I had high hopes that the NDP would bring in more accountability for the Commissions with fully mail-in ballots but they seem unwilling to even notice the Commissions might not be perfect. Agriculture for all that it generates consistent net national product returns seems to be very much the portfolio that no politician wants and when they get it has no interest in learning it.

    1. We need more people to understand this issue…my background is rural, but until this last election I had no idea the check off commissions existed, let alone how they operated. Doing what we can now, to fill people in, but it’s hard sometimes to get Albertan’s to examine new information….changing our minds being such an onerous task and all.

  3. I doubt it took as long as 3 hours.
    I don’t think the government is buying votes since I don’t know any farmers who would consider voting NDP anyway.
    The various commissions, as David said, are little more than spokespeople for the status quo, who maintain a strict distance from anything controversial. It sometimes seems that they are more concerned about their privileged status as professional meeting attendees, than they are for the benefit of an individual farmer.

    How long can Canadian farmers carry on when they receive the same $6 for a bushel of wheat today, that they received in 1973 (44 years ago). That is an issue that should be front and centre for any organization calling itself the Alberta Wheat Commission.
    I’m not sure that we are served well by these commissions that wish to buddy-up with corporations whose main preoccupation is to extract as much value from the “industry” as possible. As usual, farmers are manipulated every day, with little influence over the marketplace, into which they provide the raw product.
    Value is extracted from that product at every step along the way, by the industry. Farmers are not party to the ultimate value of the wheat they produce. The “industry” is not forthcoming with information that might help farmers understand that they are not being gouged…..or maybe they are.
    If the commissions tackled that problem, maybe you could say they are worth the millions of checkoff dollars.

    1. My family (back two generations) always believed that the Co-op was the way to go. Reading your post is a sad reminder that failing to produce enough value added products for local and near markets is the weakest link. The next weakest, is failure to exercise producer control when marketing. Basically, unions and collectives. It’s a problem, because of a multi-decade assault on sanity that’s only been successful if you’re now insane. But hey! Who’s to judge. [youtube

    2. A farmer friend with over forty years of experience growing grain in Alberta commented that the people drawing salary at the Alberta Wheat Commission were among those calling for the end of the Canadian Wheat board. Is that true?
      Many of our farm friends regard the loss of the CWB as a case of theft and among the greatest crimes committed by the Harper regime.

      1. I share your sentiments with regards, Reynold. While I can totally sympathize with a producer living a few kilometres from the border wanting the flexibility to sell his grain to to someone in Montana for a higher price, I think eliminating the CWB was serious overkill.

        I wonder if they could have been made CWB participation optional. Yes, the CWB needs to know how much grain they will have to make long term contracts, but would it have worked to have farmers make the decision now for the 2020 crop year? That would have let the anti-CWB people have their freedom, without depriving the remaining farm population of the system that (I understand) was set up to protect them from predatory grain buying companies.

        Farmer B, your thoughts would be very much appreciated on this as well.

        1. Could they have made the CWB optional? Actually for individual farmers the CWB had been optional since it started. It provided farmers with what was called a “Producer Direct Sales Program” so they could do their own selling. It was almost impossible for a farmer to lose money on that if they had a sale that was equal to or better than what the CWB was getting internationally. Organic farmers used it for years with no fuss.

        2. Have to be honest I was never a fan of the CWB. Sometimes I had to wait up to a year and a half before I received the final payment on the grain and it took a fair bit of math to calculate what you actually ended up receiving. Now I watch the markets and once the grain is contracted I know what I will recieve. The day I deliver the grain I can pick up my cheque. If I want to sell to the local ethanol plant I can. If I want to sell it to a broker shipping into the U.S. I can.

          The CWB was good at coordinating rail shipments to the coast and loading ships. They also did good research into wheat varieties.

  4. I think the NDP government would be wise to avoid the excessive cronyism and patronage of the PC’s. It was part of what led to their downfall.

    I understand that for some bodies or agencies that are primarily government funded, the government would want people that have a similar view of the world. However, for industry funded associations it is a bit different. Yes, the people who run them should be competent, but no political party has a monopoly on marketing beef, peas or beans well.

    I actually think it is a good idea to make them more accountable to their members and the PC idea of refundable dues was well just plain silly. If the members of the association are not happy with how their dues are used then they need to get of their tractors (or whatever) and go and vote the next time these associations have their annual meetings. This is accountability 101. Perhaps the fact that they have to pay dues regardless will make the members pay a bit more attention to how the funds are used. If not, well its their money that is wasted not the taxpayers.

    If there is an egregious problem that can’t readily be corrected by the members or it is clear the body is no longer useful or may be a duplication of some other body or it needs guidance then perhaps the government should step in. However, I don’t think most industry supported bodies should be the place for partisan appointments or micro management.

    1. I think you do not understand that the marketing monopoly on beef is now held by two corporations: JBS and Cargill. The marketing monopoly on grains and pulses is held by five giant companies.

      Why should farmers and ranchers pay a bunch of good ole boys (and girls) to run around the world pretending to market something they don’t have any ownership of once it leaves their farms?

      And why should those good ole boys be given the authority to simply take money from their neighbours when they run elections that make banana republics look democratic? There was a good reason Premier Stelmach took that power away from them. But what did he know, he was only a farmer.

      The world has changed and those Commissions are obsolete. They don’t do anything for producers but produce glossy publications and send their board members and staff on expensive junkets including to Edmonton for photo-ops with Minister Carlier.

      1. Perhaps it is the role of government to set the rules for elections to these bodies and monitor them so they are not run like banana republics. There may also be some rules around disclosure of expenses and compensation for these bodies that need to be improved or enforced or both. Perhaps the government can even set compensation limits. If the commissions are ineffective, it is probably within the power of the government to get rid of them entirely or change the structure.

        However replacing party hacks with other party hacks is not an improvement. It is a bad idea and that I do understand very clearly.

        1. Good points David, but Bill 9 does not change one set of party hacks for another. It is the commissions’ banana republic elections that make sure only rightwing hacks keep getting elected to those commissions. Bill 9 just makes it possible for those hacks to force their neighbours to pay for their phoney farm organizations.

        2. David, what have you suggested is a complex of bureaucratic mechanism from up to bottom, involving small army of bureaucrats to proceed all paper work and paid for by taxpayers.
          isn’t will be simpler and more efficient to introduce one legislation, which, in particular industry, could break apart established monopoly to smaller enterprises and let the farmers decide which form of join cooperative effort they need, without direct involvement of government into it?

        3. I didn’t get the impression any ‘hacks’ were being replaced. From what I read, the bill is simply letting the existing ‘hacks’ decide whether or not to return the check off money to farmers enterprising enough to fill out the forms at the end of the year, to get his/her check off taxes repaid.

          Once having to refund some farmers is eliminated, I’d suspect the records kept will become even more secretive. Disclosure of expenses and compensation for these bodies? Does that happen in any pubic way now? Perhaps at the AGM, where these guys get themselves re-elected year after year. If so, we all know the extent of the financial scrutiny that likely goes on.

          1. “From what I read, the bill is simply letting the existing ‘hacks’ decide whether or not to return the check off money to farmers enterprising enough to fill out the forms at the end of the year, to get his/her check off taxes repaid.” That is correct. DJC

  5. My first thought is that a strong majority of rural Albertan’s were not and are not NDP supporters. What the NDP’s poor handling of bill 6 succeeded in doing was take a population not pleased with the election result and give them a great deal of inspiration to make sure it doesn’t happen again in the next election. What I can’t understand is the strong dislike of farms becoming larger and more efficient over time. This is by necessity not choice. As pointed out we recieve roughly the same 6 dollars per bushel for wheat that we did over 40 years ago and our costs for inputs like fertilizer have increased by 3-400%. Fuel probably more than 500%. Back in the 70’s 10-20000 bushels of marketable grain could provide a living, today it takes over 100000 bushels of grain to do the same. Undoubtably niche markets exist that can provide a living from less but that reality can only exist for a small percentage of farmers.

    The mail in ballot certainly seems like a reasonable idea. As far as dial-up, most of us have high speed satellite internet lol. Not really sure why you think these commissions are arms of the WRP, the reality is as I stated above the NDP is not popular in the country, we believe in free enterprise and self reliance.

    1. Lots of farmers have high speed satellite internet but I know a fair few still who don’t because they just can’t access it. We are supposed to be able to get it in our area but the provider (and we’re rural so it’s not like we have a lot of options on who provides internet) can’t get it to upload/download much beyond a good dial up connection.

      The Commissions were anti-Bill 6 and they are taking the same position on agriculture (not pushing for more money for farmers) that the WRP is.

    2. I too am interested in your thoughts on this issue, Farmer B. If you don’t mind personal questions, is there a commission attached to the goods you produce, and if so, what are your thoughts on that commission? With regards to voting, are all producers given one vote, or do large producers have more clout than small ones?

      1. It is one producer, one vote BUT producers only get a vote if they are prepared to take a day or two off and travel hours to a remote meeting location. The last one for wheat was held in Edmonton, – 4 hours and a very long day away from my place and a good 6 or 8 hours away from the wheat belt south of Highway One.

        1. Thanks, Kang. A producer would have to be pretty motivated to vote under those conditions. I they at least hold the vote when it isn’t calving, seeding, spraying, branding or harvest time!

        2. So essentially, they have it rigged so that the farmers who pay for this dubious service don’t get to interfere in the smooth running of yet another neo-liberal rip off of the folks on the ground, in favour of the jet setting crowd who knows better than a mere ‘producer’ what to do with the hard earned fruits of the producer’s labour.

          Great system! And it must by a very bullish one too……..for an NDP minister of Agriculture to actually be catering to it.

      2. Bob, I produce canola, wheat, barley, field peas and run a cow calf operation with my son. All these commodities have commissions. Kang is correct on all points. As for myself generally to busy to take time to go to the meetings to vote. Alberta Beef Producers has in my opinion been beneficial to the average cattleman as have the commissions attached to the various grains I produce. I really think this bill is a lot of to do about nothing.

        1. I’m sorry I have to disagree with you on this. The three commissions (wheat, barley, & canola) levied almost $15 million in taxes on our production last crop year. That is a lot of money. Unless every farmer who pays that production tax (levy) has a fair opportunity to vote – and that realistically means a mail in ballot – this is a lot of taxation without representation.

          It is debatable if they did any good for farmers. What is not debatable is that farmers cannot realistically vote and this new Bill 9 means we might not even be able to get our money back.

    3. Good heavens Farmer B. Rural Albertans believe in free enterprise and self reliance????

      Is that why they have the infinite passivity to tolerate check off boards that have figured out how to write them out of the process?

      Sounds to me more like rural Albertans believe in what is called ‘political quietism’….essentially don’t get involved, just tend your own garden, eh, farm……..and trust the authorities to take care of your needs. Self reliance is all very well…but might there not be some ignorance and complacency mixed in there as well.

      It’s easy to think we’re independent free agents………..but it doesn’t sound like paying into those check offs is optional.

      1. Rural Albertans are deeply delusional on this topic. I believe they sincerely see themselves hardy, rugged individualists when in fact they are sustained by a form of welfare. This is all very well, except that their attitudes toward people who need a similar level of government intervention to survive in urban areas is extremely harsh, and they have swallowed a lot of right-wing rhetoric that reinforces their complimentary and unjustified view of themselves. In other words, they are Trump voters, with their on little Trump to vote for. If they get their comeuppance from their own politicians it will be bad for society, but there will be a certain rough justice to it.

  6. I was hoping you’d comment on this one Farmer…I was interested in you insight.

    Unfortunately, free enterprise is usually underwritten by government, be it by market creating and maintaining legislation or direct and indirect subsidies. Always has, always will. Self-reliance is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it’s more of an ideological smokescreen than something you can actually observe in the lab.

    Interesting comment, nonetheless.

  7. Once again,thank you David, for this thorough examination of a system that every Albertan should be aware of. I do not know what our minister of Agriculture is thinking……….or what the pressures on his department are, but ‘no taxation without representation’ has always seemed like a cornerstone of a working democracy to me.

    That farmers should have to pay these ‘check-offs’, but be part of a system that actively thwarts their right to have a vote on how things are run, is inexcusable. I’m sure however, that is will work much more smoothly, when the last Canadian farmer retires or is driven out of business, and big agri-business, run no doubt by ‘foreign investors’ who know better than we do what our land is worth, take over the growing and marketing of Canadian produce.

    Hard to imagine that we’ve come to this. The richest damn land on earth, and we can’t find a way to honour and support the men and women who make it produce. And you are right. When oil is history, it will be a crime and a shame if Canadian agriculture is history too.

    But as with our present housing bubble……..many people know the worth of this country, and will be only too happy to buy it off us, once we’ve made the family farm obsolete.

  8. Dear Sir;

    Concerning elections of Alberta crop commissions:

    “If the commissions’ voting structure isn’t fixed – farmers who are members of most commissions have to
    drive miles to a central town to vote – this problem is likely to continue, or get worse. A simple postal mail-in
    ballot, on paper, could do the trick.”

    Alberta Canola Producers Commission has always had a mail-in ballot electoral system since its inception in 1989.

    Every canola farmer in a region in which an election for director is being held is mailed a ballot that is designed so that the farmers choice is secret. Farmers that have chosen to let their name stand in an election are invited to observe as ballots are opened to ensure that the integrity of the secret ballot has been maintained.

    Ward Toma, General Manager, Alberta Canola

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