From farm to factory, Canadian dairy industry has no time for Trump

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From farm to factory, Canadian dairy industry has no time for Trump

A generation after Peter Strebel's father started a farm in 1976 with 50 Holsteins, Canada's dairy sector is at the heart of a mounting trade war, and Strebel fears the survival of farms like his is at stake. 

It's a sunny day in June, and normally Strebel would be spending every moment working in the fields on his farm in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, Que.

But he's given up his precious time to speak with CBC News, because he says it's important to defend supply management.

"It's really stressful," Strebel said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump's sustained attack on Canada's dairy sector.

Yesterday, in Singapore, the American president repeated what he'd tweeted earlier from Air Force One, after leaving the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Que.

"They don't take our farm products — many of them. They charge what was 270 per cent, but somebody told me the other day that a few months ago they raised it to 295 per cent for dairy products," Trump said.

"It's very unfair to our farmers.… They have tremendous barriers up. They have tremendous tariffs," Trump said.

But those so-called barriers — part of what's known as supply management — have been enshrined in Canada's dairy sector for more than 40 years. 

"If you really dismantle the whole supply management system, I guess probably within five years half the farms in Canada would disappear," Strebel said.

"The other half would probably just kind of imitate the American system — getting larger, having over-production, needing to have government support or subsidies to keep the industry alive."

The largest concentration of Canada's dairy cows (nearly 37 per cent) are in Quebec, where most are on family-owned farms like Ferme Strebel et fils.

Before 1971, when supply management came into effect, Strebel said, dairy farmers had no stability. Price and demand could change drastically from one day to another.

But the introduction of tariffs on imported dairy, as well as quotas and fixed prices, allowed family-owned farms like his to thrive. 

Strebel said it's partly why he's been able to grow his father's business into a 150-cow herd.

Growth hormone in U.S. dairy

From the farm to the factory, Canada's dairy sector has no time for the American president's threats.

Chapman's Ice Cream, based in Markdale, Ont., uses roughly 1.5 million litres of Canadian cream each year, and wants to keep it that way.

While eliminating tariffs on dairy imports would mean lower costs, vice-president Ashley Chapman remains against it, as a matter of principle.

"Canadian dairy is far superior in my opinion. Our entire industry is far superior in quality, animal husbandry rights, anything you could possibly think of." he said.

He said he's 100 per cent in favour of keeping supply management in place, even if it's a competitive disadvantage. 

Chapman isn't comfortable using American milk, partly because the U.S. allows its cows to be injected with bovine growth hormones — a practice that has never been approved in Canada.

"We would never want to get into a position where we were selling our products to Canadians with all this garbage in the dairy," he said.

Time for supply management 2.0?

Canada's dairy producers also criticize Trump for cherry-picking his facts in the trade dispute, and glossing over the fact that American farmers get a leg up through subsidies. 

Yet Trump's words still sting, and have already contributed to some political fallout in Canada.

"It is a sacred cow — no pun [intended] — in Canada. And he's taking advantage of it," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Charlebois calls Trump's attacks a short-term problem, but said it might be time to start thinking about supply management 2.0.

"We can no longer say that the system works and needs to be protected. It needs change. It needs to be modernized," he said. 

"We are the only industrialized country in the world with a system like this. We're the only one left."

Strebel has no qualms with modernizing supply management, as long as its core remains.

He says the industry continues to adapt and change — his father wouldn't recognize the farm the way it is today, he said.

Change is fine, Strebel said, as long as the next generation can survive it.