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Wheat Growers victims of self-inflicted wounds

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer and writer

(Monday, June 16, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The death notice issued by the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association on its own behalf last week was short on analysis. In a letter to members, the Wheat Growers announced the end of the organization and stated it was due to declining membership, now reported at less than 1000. A few vague reasons were given for this - changing demographics, declining wheat acres and "changes to the farming landscape."

The truth is the Wheat Growers Association died from nearly a decade of self-inflicted wounds. These resulted not only from a failure of vision, but from a profound failure to understand the farm community in western Canada.

The failure of vision became increasingly apparent over the last decade as the Wheat Growers' attacks on the Canadian Wheat Board became more frequent, more strident and less rational. The CWB was blamed for trade disputes, falling grain prices, increasing freight rates, the failure of canola shippers to load in a timely manner, and much more. The barrage of press releases with a single focus and overblown hyperbole damaged the Wheat Growers' credibility with news organizations and farmers alike. The old joke about the blockheaded farmer blaming the lack of rain on the CPR was updated to the Wheat Grower blaming the Wheat Board for everything from grasshoppers to SARS. While there were very real issues to examine, the Wheat Growers brushed them aside to maintain that all problems would disappear if the CWB did likewise.

While all this appeared foolish to many farmers, a more disturbing aspect to the Wheat Growers' behaviour became apparent. The Wheat Growers were far more comfortable with positions taken by agribusiness than those of other farm organizations. This led to some inexplicable behaviour. Farmers who attended the Kroeger process, examining grain transportation issues, were often taken aback by the stands of the Wheat Growers' representatives, especially their firm backing of the railways' position against open access.

The dividing line between the Wheat Growers and other farm groups was clearly illustrated at the end of each day of hearings. While six or seven farm groups headed off one direction for a supper caucus, the Wheat Growers would team up with the railways' representatives and go another.

The Wheat Growers seemed to go out of their way to create enemies of farmers while trumpeting the railway or grain company line. When groups like West Central Road and Rail fought rail abandonment, the Wheat Growers declared that branch lines had to go. When farmers organized short line railways, the Wheat Growers attacked these as relics of the past. When the Canadian Grain Commission tried to force producer car loading facilities to license as primary elevators, the Wheat Growers supported this, to howls of outrage. When farmers organized the Farmer Rail Car Coalition to purchase the government owned hopper cars, the Wheat Growers withdrew, saying these groups were not sufficiently commercial. When the CWB challenged the railways over inadequate service in the winter of 96-97, the Wheat Growers tried to undermine the case before the Agency. When the CWB victory restored millions of dollars to farmers' pockets, the Wheat Growers could only scoff.

Perhaps most significantly, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, and their sister group, the Western Barley Growers Association have supported Monsanto in its bid to release genetically modified Roundup Ready wheat. This caused a huge split in the organization and earned the puzzled contempt of farmers across western Canada. With no other farm groups supporting this move, accusations flew that the Wheat Growers were bought and paid for by Monsanto and other corporate friends. The disclosure that the Roundup Ready panel, convened by Monsanto with a mandate to promote the introduction of Roundup Ready wheat, was heavily weighted with Wheat Grower members only reinforced this view.

Clearly, the Wheat Growers failed to understand the sophistication of modern farmers. The simplistic notion that a market freed of the tyranny of single desk selling would solve all problems simply is not credible in an age of grain company consolidation and the massive power of multinational grain traders. Nor is a blind adherence to the religion of deregulation likely to gain many converts.

The Wheat Growers failed dismally to see shades of gray. As economic power in the agriculture industry becomes more concentrated in fewer hands, the role of regulation in ensuring that markets are truly free and competitive becomes more, not less important.

Canadians, farmers included, are prone to reject extreme positions. The Wheat Growers marginalized themselves by fanatical adherence to an extreme right wing agenda. Just as Canadians appear to have rejected the extreme political right wing, so have farmers rejected the extreme views of the Wheat Growers. It is worth noting that membership in the National Farmers Union is increasing while the Wheat Growers fade away.

Nevertheless, as a friend of mine pointed out, supporters of the Wheat Growers should be commended for one thing. They have taken an active role in trying to influence agriculture policy. This desire to promote change is positive, no matter how wrongheaded the direction. But those who fear that the demise of the Wheat Growers will leave a void in policy debate should not worry. Last time I looked, the corporate sponsors and financiers of the Wheat Growers -Cargill, Monsanto, CN, CP and others - had not done away with their own organs of propaganda. They simply need to find another mouthpiece in the farm community. Nor should one underestimate the ability of the Wheat Growers to morph into another form as the need dictates.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone, 868-2009 fax