Understanding why Alberta farmers loathe the carbon tax

Farmers rely heavily on the weather to grow food, but they are resoundingly opposed to the key government policy to help the environment — a carbon tax.

Agriculture sector receives exemptions, but it's not enough, farmers say

Cherylynn Bos is concerned the carbon tax will increase the costs to run her goat farm and small milk processing facility. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

They are the stewards of the land, the so-called first environmentalists, and they rely heavily on the weather and predictable climate to grow food to put on your plate.

That's why it's somewhat surprising that Alberta farmers are resoundingly opposed to the key government policy to help the environment and meet climate change goals — a carbon tax.

I don't know anybody who would be in favour of [a carbon tax]- Matt Sawyer, Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association

The vast majority of scientists say human-caused climate change is dangerous for the planet and economists say a carbon tax is an effective tool to address the issue, but farmers aren't buying it.

That includes Cherylynn Bos, who gives her goats a rub under their necks while thinking about how her farm could be any more energy efficient.

Her barn, which houses 1,200 goats, is already insulated to the maximum and uses very little electricity for lighting. 

"Besides implementing a solar-type system on our farm, our farm is as green as you can get," says Bos, whose family runs Rock Ridge Dairy near Ponoka, Alta., about 100 km south of Edmonton.

With margins pretty tight for farmers, there is little room to be wasteful, whether it's with feed for animals or diesel for the tractors. 
The farmer from Ponoka, Alta, is worried about the carbon tax. 0:44

Bos is upset about the financial impact Alberta's new carbon tax will have on her farm, which produces cheeses that are sold in five provinces.

"In the end, that is going to translate into an increase for the customer on the food that they purchase," she says, giving examples such as increased trucking costs for bringing supplies to the farm and moving products to stores.

Farmers already conserving 

Organic farmers like Tim Hoven are also upset about the tax, which is aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He figures he'll have to pay another $1,000 a year in natural gas just to heat his buildings.

"Our farm's shop we keep at three degrees Celsius, just so the tractors start nice. So, do we turn it down so it stays at minus five? And how much of a cash savings is that going to be?" says Hoven, who raises certified organic cattle, chickens and hogs at his farm near Eckville, Alta., about 175 km north of Calgary.

Many farmers employ environmental practices to protect soil, like zero-till seeding and using trees as windbreaks. 

Hoven is also working with academics from Texas A&M and Colorado State universities to research what's known as adaptive grazing, which attempts to raise the largest number of animals on the smallest amount of land for the shortest amount of time. It's supposed to give the land enough of a rest period to re-grow and pull carbon into the roots and soil.

But the carbon tax, he says, is pointless in helping the climate.

"We can't see the purpose of it. Is it really going to make a difference? Is the government taking an extra thousand or two thousand dollars out of my bottom line every year going to do anything to the environment? I don't think it is," Hoven says.
The organic farmer does not think a carbon tax will lower emissions in the country. 0:43

Of the producers and agriculture groups contacted by CBC News, none could suggest a farmer who supports the carbon tax.

"I don't know anybody who would be in favour of this," says Matt Sawyer, a director with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers. "It's unbelievable."

Cornucopia of complaints

One by one, Sawyer lists all of the concerns farmers have with the carbon tax, including that it's a tax grab, that it could drive up costs from manufacturers and that it will hurt the industry's competitiveness to export globally.

"Anything that leaves the farm, like commercial transportation, will be taxed. All of your imports will be taxed, all your manufacturers will be taxed," Sawyer says. "I think it's a huge deal."  
The director with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association says he doesn't know any farmers who support the tax. 0:41

Farmers also question whether politicians actually want to help the environment or whether they are trying to redistribute wealth and create more government jobs to administer the tax and other climate-related programs. 

Some also question the legitimacy of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting global warming is melting glaciers and raising sea levels.

"I don't believe in those things as far as the human aspect goes, and what they trying to tout as truth," says Bos, the goat farmer.

Agriculture and forestry accounted for nine per cent of Alberta's greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to Environment Canada.

Carbon tax does not impact trade

The complaints of farmers in Alberta is reminiscent to what happened in neighbouring B.C. after the province brought in its carbon tax in 2008. The provincial government received an earful from producers during its five-year review of the policy and prompted new exemptions for farm fuel and 80 per cent of the natural gas costs incurred by greenhouse growers.

In 2013, B.C. had experts crunch the numbers and found the province's agriculture industry did not actually suffer any negative trade impacts because of the carbon tax. Nonetheless, the government bowed to the lobbying of farmers. 

It's interesting to me that farmers are upset about this because they have been granted an exemption.- Nic Rivers, University of Ottawa

"This exemption that was offered to the tax in B.C. was supported more by anecdote than data," says Nic Rivers, a professor at the University of Ottawa who co-authored the report.

Alberta chose to offer the same exemptions as B.C., as well as create subsidies for solar panels and other energy-efficiency programs.

"It's interesting to me that farmers are upset about this, because they have been granted an exemption from the main way you would think they would be impacted," says Rivers, referring to the farm fuel.

He says farmers will face a small impact from the carbon tax, but that it won't be as noticeable as they fear.

About the Author

Kyle Bakx

Reporter

Kyle Bakx is a Calgary-based journalist with CBC's network business unit. He's covered stories across the country and internationally.

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