Nervous, anxious times for Alberta's dairy, poultry, egg farmers
Alberta producers under supply management fear NAFTA talks could lead to possible concessions
The CEO of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association insists the current debate over supply management is not meant to pit farmers against farmers, but it's vital to speak out to protect the interests of the country's beef producers — and the majority of them are located in Alberta.
Bryan Walton said he doesn't want supply management to get in the way of a renegotiated trade deal between Canada and the U.S.
"Supply management has its opponents and proponents, we're in the middle somewhere, but when it comes to impairing a trade deal, that's where the problem resides," said Walton.
He worries beef producers could suffer if supply management forces Canadian negotiators to offer up concessions from other producers.
Canada's supply management system, which regulates the dairy, poultry and egg industry, has come under scrutiny during international trade talks — most recently during NAFTA discussions with the U.S.
The system sets out to balance supply and demand, set production levels and prices for producers, and limit imports.. But critics say the system results in higher prices for consumers.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to leave Canada out of the trade agreement if the system isn't dismantled.
'All supply managed producers are concerned'
In Alberta, the dairy, poultry and egg producers who benefit from the supply management system are also worried.
"We want to see NAFTA resolved as much as anyone else," said Jason Born, the chair of Alberta Chicken Producers.
"Your livelihoods and your farms are kind of hanging in the balance, I don't want to get too dramatic about it, but you know what I mean," he said.
"All supply managed producers are concerned," said Susan Schafers with the Egg Farmers of Alberta.
Producers who fall under the supply management system in Alberta brought in nearly $1 billion in farm cash receipts last year.
In 2016, there were 784 dairy, poultry and egg farms in the province. By comparison, there were 2,894 wheat farms and 12,282 beef farms.
Walton says the export market is critically important for beef producers worth $1.7 billion in 2017.
If you add wheat and canola seed, the number soars to $5.8 billion — and most of those exports are to the U.S.
The total value of Alberta's agri-food exports hit a record last year — $11.2 billion.
That's why some producers are nervous after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his support for supply management.
"We're always anxiously watching any renegotiation of a trade agreement because NAFTA has been in our view a win for Canadian crop producers," said Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions.
Steve says he doesn't have a disagreement with the way producers choose to organize their industry but he knows it wouldn't work for wheat farmers.
"We wouldn't be able to survive in the crop industry with that type of model," he said.
But he would like to see changes to it, and government is well aware of their position.
"What we've consistently said to government is, 'there may be concessions that are required on our supply management system in order to preserve the roughly 90-95 per cent of the industry that is reliant on exports,'" said Steve.
He points out it's already happened in earlier agreements, including the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Canada agreed to allow more cheese imports from Europe.
Steve says compared to the much larger dairy, poultry and egg sector in Ontario and Quebec, additional concessions may be an easier sell in Alberta where some producers operate mixed farming operations produce supply managed and non-supply managed commodities.
"As a general rule, in Western Canada, the supply managed sector represents a small percentage of the industry, and we do look to access to international markets as the key to our success," he said.
Real upset, real anger
The Canada West Foundation, a think tank based in Calgary, advocates for the complete dismantling of the supply management system. It calls for a gradual dismantling process that would include compensation for producers.
The president of the foundation says she's spoken to producers who are angry at the prospect of losing market access because of supply management.
"The beef people are just furious right now because if NAFTA falls apart they stand to lose a certain amount of access and they're not happy that that could be a consequence of this political support for their dairy colleagues at all," said Martha Hall Findlay.
"There's real upset, there's real anger," she said.
The foundation says a worse-case scenario in a reworked NAFTA deal would be to allow more U.S. dairy products into Canada while maintaining supply management and restricted Canadian exports.
While the number of Alberta producers under supply management is relatively small, Schafers says egg producers are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the NAFTA talks.
The second-generation egg farmer has about 12,000 chickens at her operation near Edmonton.
She says she hasn't felt the need to defend supply management to other Albertans.
"Supply management is a system about farm fair pricing," she said.
Fair prices, she says, for producers and consumers
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.