Deadline approaching: Ottawa wants answer from Prairies on AgriStability program

·4 min read

The federal government wants a yes or no from the three Prairie provinces on proposed upgrades to a program that protects farmers against large declines in income.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau held a news conference Wednesday to give an update on planned changes to the AgriStability program that would increase payouts for production losses, increased costs and effects from market conditions.

Ottawa would continue to pay 60 per cent of the costs, but the provinces would be required to come up with extra cash to make the program work.

"We have received positive responses from almost all other provinces in Canada, but in order to enact these changes we are still awaiting a clear response from all three Prairie provinces," Bibeau said from her home in Sherbrooke, Que.

"We are anxious to know: Have Prairie agriculture ministers taken the proposal to their cabinet and their premiers? Are they supportive of these changes?"

Bibeau said the current program expires in 2023 and the changes would be a short-term fix to help farmers now.

She said it has been 110 days since Ottawa proposed to eliminate the reference margin limit, which serves to reduce a farmer’s payout and to boost the compensation rate to 80 per cent.

That would result in an annual increase in payouts of 50 per cent, or $170 million, she said. Of that, $100 million would come from Ottawa and the remaining $70 million from the provinces and territories.

She said she's spoken with the three agriculture ministers in recent weeks and, with a deadline of April 30 for producers to join the program, it's time for an answer.

"I would like to have a clear answer. If it's no, it's no. I hope it's going to be yes, so we know where we stand if we have to find other alternatives to support our farmers."

Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, the federal minister responsible for the Prairies, said he's been in contact with some provincial ministers urging them to bring the matter forward.

"These changes are still on the tables of our friends in Prairie governments."

Bibeau hopes to hold another meeting of federal, provincial and territorial agriculture ministers in the next couple of weeks.

The terms of the existing program will continue if an agreement including the Prairie provinces can't be reached.

"It will be the status quo. That would be very unfortunate."

The Prairie agriculture ministers said they had been calling for another meeting to discuss their issues.

Manitoba Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen said it's important to discuss "short-term amendments and long-term reforms".

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit said he hasn't talked to Bibeau since Jan. 29 where he requested a followup meeting of ministers.

"It is nice to see after all this time that the federal minister is finally willing to bring her provincial and territorial colleagues back to the table to complete this important discussion on enhancements to AgriStability," Marit said in an email.

Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen sent a letter to Bibeau two weeks ago and had also called for another meeting to "discuss and finally vote on short-term changes to AgriStability."

Dreeshen said he told Bibeau in the letter that making long-term improvements to business risk-management programs, including short-term changes to AgriStability, was a priority.

"To be successful such significant structural change requires adequate time and strong collaboration between (federal, provincial, territorial) governments as well as the agriculture sector," he wrote.

A number of national farm organizations released a statement Wednesday supporting the federal recommendations on AgriStability benefits.

“We need to have tools that help us better manage the risks of weather, trade and production. The proposed program enhancements will do that,” said Bob Lowe, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association President.

The president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said the deadline is approaching and farmers and ranchers are already making risk-management decisions for the year.

“There is no time left to wait, we need clarity now," said Mary Robinson.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2021

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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press