Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has dismissed the results of a plebiscite in which Prairie farmers voted in favour of keeping the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over wheat and barley sales.
Just over 60 per cent of wheat growers and 51 per cent of barley growers voted in favour of maintaining the board's monopoly. Some 55 per cent of wheat growers and 47 per cent of barley growers voted in the plebiscite.
The board conducted a plebiscite after Ritz refused to hold one as required under the Canadian Wheat Board Act.
But Ritz said he will change the law and eliminate the monopoly as early as next August, although the board would still exist.
"This is a non-binding survey, not a plebiscite," Ritz told CBC News Monday on the program Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.
Ritz said in an open market, all farmers will be able to choose how they market their grain, whether it's individually or through a pooling entity.
When asked what he would say to the 62 per cent of wheat farmers who voted to maintain the status quo, Ritz responded, "At the end of the day, they'll still have their marketing option."
Ritz has the support of provincial governments in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The Winnipeg-based wheat board has the support of the Manitoba government, which believes farmers have the legal right to decide the marketing agency's future.
Minister 'duty-bound' to farmers: NDP MP
Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin said Ritz is "duty-bound" to listen to what farmers are saying with the wheat board vote.
Martin also disputed Ritz's claim that a dual-marketing system would work.
"As soon as you do away with the monopoly, you do away with the power of the wheat board," Martin said. "He's [Ritz] about to legislate it out of existence."
Saskatchewan Liberal MP Ralph Goodale also called on Ritz to honour the outcome of the farmers' vote.
Goodale, a former minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, said the western Canadian economy would lose about $500 million — money that would go to international grain companies instead — if the board is scrapped.
"The CWB is a farmer-controlled, $6-billion business, and if it is destroyed, it can never be restored," Goodale stated in a release earlier Monday.
Legislation creating the board dates back to 1935. The monopoly over wheat came into effect in 1943. Barley and oats were added a few years later.
Oats were removed by a previous Conservative government in 1989, but barley and wheat exports and domestic sales for human consumption remain under board control.
Ritz has said the single desk must go if Canada's wheat growers are going to achieve their full potential. He believes farmers should be able to choose to whom they want to sell.
"The monopoly of the wheat board is standing in the way," he said. "What was once Canada's signature crop has fallen behind."
Minister confident about court challenge
Ritz told CBC News he is confident he will win a court challenge by a group called Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board, which has taken the minister to the Federal Court of Canada.
The group argues that Ritz has to abide by the legislation and was legally bound to allow farmers a vote before tampering with the monopoly.
On Friday, the head clerk of the court decided the group's request for a judicial review would proceed to a full court hearing.
Group spokesman Lyle Simonson had already indicated the group was prepared to push for the court case to go ahead regardless of the plebiscite's outcome.
"That really is independent of what the wheat board was doing because it pertains to the federal act as it is written," said Simonson, who farms near Swift Current, Sask. "It doesn't really matter what happens with the plebiscite."
But some farm groups, including the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association and Western Barley Growers Association, want the minister to proceed with his plans.
"The entire design of this vote was geared toward producing a result in favour of the monopoly," says Kevin Bender, president of the Wheat Growers.
"The government should ignore the results and move full steam ahead with plans to give us our marketing freedom."
Largest wheat, barley marketer in world
The board is definitely big business. It's the largest single marketer of wheat and barley in the world and this year paid farmers about $5.8 billion for the grain it sold on their behalf.
But it has few tangible assets. The board doesn't own grain elevators or port terminals, although it has announced it is buying a couple of ships. It has its own building — a grey stone edifice in Winnipeg at 423 Main St.
Its main "asset" has been a guaranteed supply of all the wheat and barley grown in Western Canada that is exported or sold for human consumption — think bread, pasta and beer.
Unless farmers want to feed their grain to livestock, it goes through the board.
The board and its supporters say it won't make sense for the agency to continue without a monopoly. For them, it's an either-or proposition, which was reflected in the wording of the plebiscite.
Ritz and the anti-monopoly forces insist the board can continue on a voluntary basis.
Longtime Conservative target
The monopoly has long been a target of Conservatives and their supporters. They failed in a bid in 2007 to unilaterally remove barley from the board's control when Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board challenged then-agriculture minister Chuck Strahl's plan to do it with a cabinet order. The Federal Court ruled the government didn't have the legal right to do that.
And despite suggestions of widespread producer support for getting rid of it, a solid majority of farmer-directors elected across the West have always backed the monopoly.
But Ritz says farmers essentially backed his decision when a majority Conservative government was elected in May.
Working on his farm near Saskatoon, wheat board supporter Terry Driedger said he is not sure if the board can survive.
Without the board, Driedger said farmers like him will face more work and stress as they try to market their own grain.
"We're farmers. We're not grain buyers or grain sellers," he said, but added that he will find a way to get by.
"If we're forced to, we'll do whatever it takes. That's the mettle of farmers."
Peter Phillips, a public policy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said even if the wheat board loses its monopoly, it could still survive.
"The board can and should have a long-term future," Phillips said, adding that the board will have to keep loyal farmers happy under the new system.
"Sixty per cent of the producers say they like the board, so that's a pretty good client base right there," he said.
"Under the right terms and conditions, I suspect many of the others would continue to use the board."