The Sunday Magazine

Canadian farmers on trade, environmental policy and the federal election

Michael Enright speaks with three Canadian farmers about the urban-rural divide in this country and the election issues that matter most to them, such as international trade, the economy, the environment and carbon taxes. And what they'd like us, the consumers of their food, to consider when we cast our votes.
Michael Enright speaks with three Canadian farmers about the urban-rural divide in this country, the election issues that matter most to them, and what they want food consumers to keep in mind as they head to the polls. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)

When China banned imports of Canadian canola, beef and pork, people living in urban centres were insulated from the immediate effects. 

But for farmers, market uncertainty caused by geopolitical turmoil is not an abstract issue. It means crops go unsold and incomes plummet.

We live and die by the actions of someone else, because we are so trade-dependent.- Blain Hjertaas, Sask. farmer

From trade to foreign relations to environmental policy, Canadian farmers are on the front lines of many of this election's most pressing debates.

Droughts, floods, and an uptick in extreme storms all have a direct effect on their livelihoods. Some farmers also argue that the carbon tax hurts them at a time they're already struggling,  and that they are the wrong target for that policy. 

But even though farmers are passionately engaged in these debates, they make up just two percent of Canada's population. 

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke to three farmers across the country about trade and environmental policy in the lead-up to the federal election. 

Trade: 'This situation with China has hurt us greatly'

For Matt Sawyer, a canola and wheat farmer in Acme, Alta., the most pressing issue this election is trade. 

"The last 36 months, we've lost trade with Vietnam, Peru, Saudi Arabia and China and we need to come forward with some measures to re-establish trade for our producers as soon as we can. Bottom line," he said. 

"We've seen our prices for our commodities plummet ... we're looking at 30 percent down in prices in a lot of cases, especially canola. This situation with China has hurt us greatly on the farm," said Sawyer, who is also the director of the Western Canadian Wheat-Growers Association. 

The Chinese ban on Canadian canola - seen growing here near Portage la Prairie - is one factor weighing down Manitoba's economy. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"It's not a science-based issue that we're dealing with, with a border closure to China. It's nothing more than political ramblings, and we have to find a solution to that. It was nice to see us appoint the new ambassador to China, but we have to go more than that. Working through the WTO is a good start for us, but we need to do more."

Amanda Brodhagen, whose farm in southwestern Ontario raises beef and grows crops, said beef producers in her area are feeling the effects of trade problems with China and Saudi Arabia, combined with delays and reduced capacity for meat processing in eastern Canada and challenges accessing markets in the U.S. and E.U. 

Amanda Brodhagen farms with her family outside of Stratford in southwestern Ontario. They raise beef cattle and grow crops. She's a former agriculture policy advisor, and currently serves as a rural councillor for Perth East. (Submitted by Amanda Brodhagen)

"Beef farmers in Ontario and Quebec have been losing $180 a head on animals since the beginning of January, and this is becoming really unsustainable, especially as some other agriculture sectors have received billions of dollars to help offset some of their losses," she said. 

"If you look at the eastern provinces combined — Ontario and Quebec — we've exceeded $100 million of farm losses since the start of the year."

Blain Hjertaas, who runs a grass-based cattle and sheep farm near Redvers, Sask., said people in cities may not understand how acutely farmers are affected by what happens in international trade and diplomacy. 

"I think to put it in terms for urban people, I lived through the BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease) era, when the price of cattle dropped dramatically overnight. It would sort of be like, you go to work and get your paycheque, and all of the sudden it's 10 per cent of what you're accustomed to," he said. 

"That's what we deal with with these trade things, and it's totally out of our control as farmers. We live and die by the actions of someone else, because we are so trade-dependent. We export about 70 per cent of the production off the farms to the world."

In 2018, Saudi Arabia blocked imports of some Canadian agricultural products, in retaliation for  Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's criticism of the kingdom's human rights record. 

Sawyer said he wants to see Canada become less dependent on countries like Saudi Arabia. 

"Number one, if I was running the show, we'd say Energy East — boom, done. Let's get that pipeline in the ground — and Saudi Arabia, sorry, we don't need you and your oil coming in here to eastern Canada. We're going to use our own oil," he said.

"It's too bad we can't have that type of clout, similar to China, [which] is such a big powerhouse, and so is the U.S."

Climate change and the environment

Hjertaas says climate change and carbon policy are his most pressing issues as a voter. 

"Agriculture is destroying our planet, the way we are approaching the system," he told The Canadian Press

Hjertaas, who practices something called regenerative farming, said farmers need to take more steps to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, both to mitigate the effects of climate change and to improve soil health. 

Blain Hjertaas on his farm near Redvers, Sask. (Sandy Black )

"What regenerative agriculture does is build soil health … [and] creates organic matter. That's how we get the CO2 back out of our atmosphere." 

"If you look at the organic matter levels on the prairies, when our grandfathers and great grandfathers came here, we averaged 12 per cent organic matter in the eastern prairies. Today most farms are anywhere from two to four percent in the average organic matter," he said. 

"So over the last 150 years of farming we have taken an awful lot of the organic matter from our soils by our farming methods, and we've put it back up into the atmosphere. But now our technology is good enough that we've learned how to reverse that process by regenerative agriculture."

Many farmers have been vocal in their opposition to the carbon tax, including Sawyer. 

Matt Sawyer thinks the motivation behind the carbon tax was to get pipelines approved, not to help the environment.

6 years ago
Duration 0:41
The director with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association says he doesn't know any farmers who support the tax.

But Hjertaas said he would be in favour of a carbon tax that was restructured to include incentives for carbon sequestration.

"If the carbon tax taxed the bad behaviour, but then rewarded the good behaviour, so farmers got paid to put carbon into the soil, then that would be a tax that would actually solve the problem, and I think then society would generally be behind it," he said. 

"For the most part, I think farmers see themselves as the good guys in the carbon debate," said Brodhagen. "I think that pricing carbon isn't the way to go. Farmers are price takers, not price makers. That means that we can't pass that extra cost onto our consumers. We live in a global market, and if our cost of production goes up it puts us at a competitive disadvantage."

(William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

But, she said, it's important for farmers to engage in conversations with governments about carbon policies. 

"We have to recognize that if there is a willingness from the government to move in this direction, we definitely want to be at the table ... to figure out what will work for farmers."

She also wants to see the government invest in research about the effects of climate change on things like crop pests. 

"I think the one thing that is certain is that Mother Nature has been working in extremes ... even just in talking with my dad, who's been farming a lot longer than I have, we can definitely see that there is more extreme weather," she said. 

"That increases the vulnerability for farmers that already live in a very volatile business."

Click 'listen' to hear the panel. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?