Just What Is An “Actual” Farmer?

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Private member’s bills are mostly an excuse for MPs, especially in opposition, to issue a press release and get their name associated with some popular cause. The odds of private member’s bill being passed in Parliament may be somewhat better than winning the 6-49, but not much. There’s a lottery system, and even if selected they must get into a long line and usually die on the order paper.

Such is the likely fate of Bill C-479, an act to amend the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Act. Too bad, because regardless of its merits or otherwise, debate of this one would have many farmers searching for that seldom-watched channel which televises parliamentary proceedings.

C-479 is a bill with a bit of a difference. It’s sponsored by Larry Miller, the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, so you can safely assume that he will not be proposing anything that does not have at least tacit approval of The Boss. Moreover, Mr. Miller has another position to protect, that being chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Introducing his bill, Miller said, “The purpose of this bill is to ensure that actual farmers are the primary target and beneficiaries of federally funded farm programs.” In other words, no money for hobby farmers at one end of the spectrum, and giant corporations at the other. Miller proposes that funds would not be granted to:

any corporation with publicly traded stock;

any company or subsidiary that’s 40 per cent or more controlled by a publicly traded corporation;

any company, corporation or partnership with more than 250 shareholders, members or partners;

any company, corporation or partnership with aggregate debts greater than $10 million arising out of a farming operation; or

any farmer whose gross market value of production from a farm, including farm income stabilization payments and crop insurance payments, is less than $10,000 per year, or an average of that amount over a five-year period.

The bill makes an exception for beginning farmers – those under 40 who make at least $5,000 in gross market value in each of their first three years.

OK, hands up out there. Anyone who thinks Maple Leaf should have received $3 million for its hog barn losses in the last quarter? How about the former SaskPool getting $4.9 million in CAIS payments for its porcine misadventures?

We don’t see too many hands. But if you ignore the bill’s monetary limits and only focus on the underlying principle, this debate could cause a bit of squirming.

For instance, you don’t hear anyone saying the government should have compensated investors for their stock market losses last year. So then why should doctors or lawyers – or retired grain farmers – receive AgriStability payments for investment losses in hog barns that they’ve never even seen? They presumably aren’t what Mr. Miller refers to as “actual farmers.”

So is size really an issue? You can bet that this question would be asked if this bill comes up for debate. And the answer is…?

This gets to the heart of why farmers are subsidized by taxpayers, while most other businesses are not. If we are to accept, as many tell us, that agriculture is a business like any other, then what’s the difference? If it’s that food is a requirement of life and a matter of national and international security, then why shouldn’t large – and possibly more efficient – corporations be treated equally on a per-acre or per-production basis?

Or is that farming really is different because it helps keep people on the land in rural Canada, providing a variety of economic, social and environmental benefits?

That’s been the main justification so far, and most farmers would say it’s a reasonable one. However, if that’s the case, debate over Mr. Miller’s bill would raise another issue, which is whether the current subsidy system tied to production is the right way to go. Perhaps it should be a Europeanstyle system based on land, and you can choose to grow crops or not.

The U.S. has theoretically had farm payment limits, but in reality farmers dodge them by forming multiple corporations. On the surface, Mr. Miller’s system appears to be more enforceable – no funds to big public companies, period. It presumably throws a wrench into plans such as those for a Toronto-based mutual fund to operate a million acres in Western Canada. Investment trusts buying farmland with the intention of leasing it could still do so, but probably couldn’t get payments under crop share agreements.

With some large payments now going to large corporations that don’t look like traditional farms, questions are being asked. This isn’t just about cutting off Maple Leaf and Viterra – if implemented this bill could cut quite a swath through the hog-and beef-feeding industry.

Again, Conservative MPs don’t float trial balloons without at least tacit consent of their party. Bill C-479 itself may not have much of a future, but the issue of who should get farm subsidies, and how they should be paid, is starting to move higher up the public policy agenda.

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