Canadian Wheat Board monopoly nears its end

The Canadian Wheat Board is one day away from the end of its monopoly on western wheat and barley.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz in front of the countdown clock to marketing freedom for western grain and barley farmers. (Kathy Fitzpatrick)

It will soon be the beginning of a new grain-marketing era as the Canadian Wheat Board is one day away from the end of its monopoly on western wheat and barley.

After decades of being the only producer marketing system in the West, and the largest marketer of its kind in the world, the board will become voluntary on Wednesday.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was in Saskatoon on Tuesday to speak about marketing freedom for grain and barley farmers.

Ottawa passed a law last year that will allow farmers to sell their grain to whatever company they choose.

Since the 1940s, farmers in the Prairies have had to sell their wheat and barley to the board, which in turn would export it to foreign markets.

Starting on Wednesday, the changes will allow farmers to market their grain to the highest bidder.

But those who support the wheat board argue the monopoly protects farmers from selling at a loss when markets are low.

Critics rally in Winnipeg

A small group of farmers held a protest outside the wheat board's Winnipeg headquarters on Tuesday afternoon to oppose the upcoming changes.

"The grain trade is gaining a lot of control; farmers are losing control, power and money," said Kyle Korneychuck, a Saskatchewan farmer and former wheat board director.

The CWB has a new logo reflecting the green of nature, the blue of the prairie sky and the gold of the harvest.

"It's basically thievery. There's no other way to put it."

Korneychuk said he won't sell his grain through the rebranded wheat board, since he still favours the old model that was based on a farmer-elected board of directors.

But Ed Sagan, another Saskatchewan farmer who attended Tuesday's rally, said he will likely sell his grain through the new wheat board.

"What choice do we have … support the multinational grain companies or have something that resembles a wheat board?" he said.

Both Sagan and Korneychuk are involved in groups that are asking the Supreme Court of Canada to force the federal government to overturn the wheat board changes.

But some western producers, including Mike Bast of La Salle, Man., say they are happy to see the monopoly finally end.

"I see great opportunity now for wheat, which we had seen in oats and canola from before, just in the freedom of being able to market it to meet your own farm needs," he said.

Canadian Wheat Board optimistic

Ian White, CEO of the new wheat board, said Tuesday the agency is optimistic about the new crop year and its future.

"We have a brand new look, a solid business model and the support of thousands of farmers who have told us they intend to market grain with CWB," said White in a press release.

He announced the agency had reached a new agreement with grain handling company Louis Dreyfus Canada Ltd., which will handle grain for farmers who still want to market their product through the wheat board.

This means the farmers going through the wheat board will have 130 locations in the West to deliver grain.

White said the agency has received strong indications that farmers will continue to market their grain through CWB.

Market analysts say a major drought in the United States and low grain yields in places like Russia could result in a big demand for Canadian grain.

White said grain prices are predicted to stay high, which will create pricing opportunities for farmers and the board.