Letter from Saskatchewan
Canadian farmers need a strategy
as "leaders" dither over BSE/beef

By Paul Beingessner

Meet Paul

Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2, 2004: The political parties contesting Canada's federal election made it clear by their absence of comment that they have no idea how to get the American border re-opened to Canadian cattle. Disappointing, but no big surprise.

The recipe for keeping the border closed, on the other hand, is well known. Take one part partisan politician, Baucus and Conrad are two brand names that come to mind. Mix this with one part noisy farm group prone to near-hysterical statements. Add a sprinkle of blatant disregard for international protocols and serve, half-baked, over a steaming bed of fall election hysteria.

Canadian politicians have wisely taken a non-position on BSE and how to open the American border. After all, politicians in the twenty-first century don't, as a rule, put forward a vision. Rather, they lead by watching the parade form up, and then running to the head of it. The parade of Canadian farmers has yet to form up. Instead, there is a great deal of milling around on the side streets, but no one seems to know which way to head.

You can get a picture of this in the farm press. Story after story about BSE shows how divided and uncertain farmers are. Some urge governments and fellow farmers to invest in packing plants. The problem is not enough capacity in Canada. Others claim capacity is not the issue at all. Show us the markets that will absorb any new production, they say.

Some farmers call for more cash to be funneled to producers, to stave off mass failure. Other claim this is a waste of government resources, which should be directed toward increasing packing capacity or other broader measures.

Meanwhile, a group made up of some of the largest feedlot operators in Alberta says it is considering challenging the Americans' refusal to open the border. The group is discussing the launch of a Chapter 11 NAFTA challenge, claiming the decision to keep the border closed stems from political, not health reasons. Such a challenge can take years to work through and costs could be as high as $10 million.

The Canadian Cattlemen's Association does not support such a move. It claims the chance of a win is low and warns the Americans might consider such an act as "hostile". (Oh well, they're too involved in Iraq to launch an invasion here.)

There are also two sides to the testing argument. Some farmers and processors are saying we should not be afraid to test all cattle going to slaughter for BSE, or at least those going to sensitive markets such as Japan. Many other farm groups are adamantly opposed to widespread testing, saying it will set up a chain of events that will entrench the need to test all cattle, at a substantial cost. It will also, they say, annoy the Americans, who might be obliged to follow suit.

The controversy over these ideas makes it hard for farmers to pick a winner. Perhaps this is why the recent rallies designed to raise the profile of the BSE issue have failed to draw the numbers supporters wanted. Who knows which of the competing bandwagons to jump on?

As if things weren't complicated enough, the announcement came last week that a second cow in the U.S. is suspected of having BSE. The American government is dealing with this in its usual open fashion, refusing even to identify which state the cow came from.

If they are confused today, Canadian farmers had better pick a course of action soon and get on with it. The new federal government will look to farmers and farm groups to point out the way to go. Even pointing in several directions at the same time is better than keeping your hands in your pockets.

In the dog days of summer, farmers would do well to attend a few meetings and find a tree to bark up. The current situation, with Don Quixote farmers riding off in all directions is a classic example of what is wrong with farm political movements and their adherents.

© Paul Beingessner, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.