From farm to factory, Canadian dairy industry has no time for Trump

A generation after Peter Strebel's father started a farm in 1976 with 50 Holsteins, Canada's dairy sector is at the heart of a mounting trade war, and Strebel fears the survival of farms like his is at stake.

U.S. president wants Canada to axe supply management, but farmers say that would destroy their livelihood

Peter Strebel inherited his dairy farm from his father, who started with 50 cows in 1976. It's since grown to a herd of 150 cows, and Strebel hopes to one day pass the business on to his sons. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

A generation after Peter Strebel's father started a farm in 1976 with 50 Holsteins, Canada's dairy sector is at the heart of a mounting trade war, and Strebel fears the survival of farms like his is at stake. 

It's a sunny day in June, and normally Strebel would be spending every moment working in the fields on his farm in Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, Que.

But Strebel, who represents his region on the board of directors of the lobby group representing Quebec's dairy sector, Les Producteurs de lait du Québec, says it's important to take the time to defend supply management. 

"It's really stressful," Strebel said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump's sustained attack on Canada's dairy sector.

Probably within five years half the farms in Canada would disappear.- Peter Strebel, Quebec dairy farmer

Yesterday, in Singapore, the American president repeated what he'd tweeted earlier from Air Force One, after leaving the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Que.

"They don't take our farm products — many of them. They charge what was 270 per cent, but somebody told me the other day that a few months ago they raised it to 295 per cent for dairy products," Trump said.

"It's very unfair to our farmers.… They have tremendous barriers up. They have tremendous tariffs," Trump said.

But those so-called barriers — part of what's known as supply management — have been enshrined in Canada's dairy sector for more than 40 years. 

"If you really dismantle the whole supply management system, I guess probably within five years half the farms in Canada would disappear," Strebel said.

"The other half would probably just kind of imitate the American system — getting larger, having over-production, needing to have government support or subsidies to keep the industry alive."

Nearly 37 per cent of Canada's dairy cows are in Quebec, on family farms like Ferme Strebel et fils. Dairy producers say that without supply management, they'd struggle to survive. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

The largest concentration of Canada's dairy cows (nearly 37 per cent) are in Quebec, where most are on family-owned farms like Ferme Strebel et fils.

Before 1971, when supply management came into effect, Strebel said, dairy farmers had no stability. Price and demand could change drastically from one day to another.

But the introduction of tariffs on imported dairy, as well as quotas and fixed prices, allowed family-owned farms like his to thrive. 

Strebel said it's partly why he's been able to grow his father's business into a 150-cow herd.

Growth hormone in U.S. dairy

From the farm to the factory, Canada's dairy sector has no time for the American president's threats.

Ashley Chapman, of Chapman's Ice Cream, says he would never want to use American dairy in his products because it contains bovine growth hormone. (CBC )

Chapman's Ice Cream, based in Markdale, Ont., uses roughly 1.5 million litres of Canadian cream each year, and wants to keep it that way.

Canadian dairy is far superior in my opinion.- Ashley Chapman, vice-president of Chapman's Ice Cream

While eliminating tariffs on dairy imports would mean lower costs, vice-president Ashley Chapman remains against it, as a matter of principle.

"Canadian dairy is far superior in my opinion. Our entire industry is far superior in quality, animal husbandry rights, anything you could possibly think of." he said.

He said he's 100 per cent in favour of keeping supply management in place, even if it's a competitive disadvantage. 

Chapman isn't comfortable using American milk, partly because the U.S. allows its cows to be injected with bovine growth hormones — a practice that has never been approved in Canada.

"We would never want to get into a position where we were selling our products to Canadians with all this garbage in the dairy," he said.

Time for supply management 2.0?

Canada's dairy producers also criticize Trump for cherry-picking his facts in the trade dispute, and glossing over the fact that American farmers get a leg up through subsidies. 

We are the only industrialized country in the world with a system like this.- Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution at Dalhousie University

Yet Trump's words still sting, and have already contributed to some political fallout in Canada.

"It is a sacred cow — no pun [intended] — in Canada. And he's taking advantage of it," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Charlebois calls Trump's attacks a short-term problem, but said it might be time to start thinking about supply management 2.0.

"We can no longer say that the system works and needs to be protected. It needs change. It needs to be modernized," he said. 

"We are the only industrialized country in the world with a system like this. We're the only one left."

Strebel has no qualms with modernizing supply management, as long as its core remains.

He says the industry continues to adapt and change — his father wouldn't recognize the farm the way it is today, he said.

Change is fine, Strebel said, as long as the next generation can survive it.

Canadian dairy producers defend their practices compared with those south of the border, where they say the animals' quality of life — and the quality of the product — suffers. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)


  • This story has been updated to include the fact that Peter Strebel represents his region on the board of Les Producteurs de lait du Québec, a lobby group for the province's dairy sector.
    Jun 20, 2018 1:45 PM ET


Jaela Bernstien


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and the environment for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at

With files from Jacqueline Hansen