Pork Pen

Government in an Uncertain World

  • Cam Dahl, Author
  • General Manager, Manitoba Pork

What should farmers be asking of governments? This is an especially relevant question for producers in Manitoba who are getting to know the new government led by Premier Kinew. Farmers and their representatives need to get this question right, because sometimes the “asks” can be counterproductive both for the development of a positive relationship with governments and for the longer-term fiscal sustainability of the sector. A key starting point should be a focus on the foundations of good long-term policies and not just short-term crises.

What are the policy foundations that will generate long-term growth and help realize the opportunity agriculture has to offer? The first, and arguably most important, “ask” of our governments is a recognition that agriculture is one of the most important sectors of the economy. Agriculture is a source of employment, investment, and income in both rural and urban areas, with over eight percent of Manitoba’s GDP coming from agriculture. Hog farming and pork processing alone account for over 22,000 jobs, in rural areas, as well as Brandon, Neepawa, Winkler, Winnipeg, and more of our urban centres. Agriculture cannot be an afterthought for economic policies. Nor can potential negative impacts from policy areas outside of agriculture be ignored. Supporting the growth of agriculture, and the value-added businesses attached to it, should be front and centre for each cabinet minister. The potential for investment and growth is almost unlimited if this mindset is maintained.

Most farmers in Manitoba depend upon international markets for sales opportunities and price determination. Taking the hog industry as an example, 90 percent of Manitoba’s annual production is destined for international markets. Concerningly, the world is becoming more protectionist, including the United States, our most important trading partner. Both major U.S. political parties are trending towards “America First” policies, and away from free trade. Examples of protectionist policies that threaten our exports include the revival of country of origin labelling and individual state legislation that is fragmenting the U.S. market (e.g., Proposition 12 in California).

Preserving the market access of both farmers and processors needs to be a key priority for both our provincial and federal governments. Agriculture needs our governments to demand that our trading partners live up to the agreements that are in place, including the recognition of Canada’s science-based food safety and animal welfare laws. Governments also need to be partners in communicating the benefits of free trade to consumers and policy makers on both sides of the border.

Sustainability is a top-of-mind issue for many of the voting public. This is why environmental sustainability is a cornerstone of many government initiatives. Farmers do not stand apart from the general public when it comes to sustainability. Producers are striving to ensure that the land and water are healthy and productive for generations to come. This is why farmers are asking governments to recognize the continuous improvement in the sustainability of agricultural production in Manitoba. It will be far easier for policy makers to engage with farmers on their sustainability journey if there is recognition of how far we have come. For example, Manitoba’s robust manure management policies treat manure as a valuable organic nutrient and limits the leaching of nutrients into surface water. Ninety percent of hog manure in Manitoba is injected below the soil surface or immediately incorporated into the soil to prevent runoff. Hog manure is only applied after soil nutrient levels are determined, manure nutrition is sampled, and is only applied to meet the demands of the intended crop.

Directly related to recognition of the sustainability contribution of Manitoba’s farmers is a request for governments to commit to advancing sustainability through a collaborative model, not a punitive regulatory approach. Regulations imposed without the collaboration of the agricultural community will meet resistance. This resistance comes because punitive regulations impose costs that make Manitoba’s farmers less competitive. These extra costs cannot be offset or recovered because farmers’ revenue is determined in international markets where our competitors do not face the same regulatory burden. Collaborating with farmers by encouraging innovation that will both improve fiscal and environmental sustainability is a more effective approach in both the short and long-run. For example, offsetting the risk taken on by early adopters for more energy efficient barns or increased nutrient utilization will be effective in advancing societal goals and make our industry more competitive.

Agriculture has the potential to further drive Manitoba’s economy, bring investment to our province and develop our communities. The right approach to collaborative policy development, legislation, and regulations will help make the potential a reality.