Grain groups give low marks to AgriStability tweaks

Ottawa — A recent meeting of the country’s agriculture ministers failed in providing effective support for farmers facing challenges, Grain Growers of Canada chair Jeff Nielsen says.

Only minor changes were made to AgriStability, the main priority item on the agenda for the Ottawa meeting held Tuesday.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and her provincial counterparts announced a full review of federal/provincial business risk management (BRM) programming will be completed in April, and the findings discussed when federal, provincial and territorial ag ministers meet again in July.

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Producers have long complained AgriStability is unresponsive and inadequate, with many calling for reference price margins to be returned to pre-2013 levels of 85 per cent rather than the current 70 per cent.

“To say again that they’re going back to review (AgriStability)… they probably won’t come to a conclusion until the summer meeting, so clearly we’re going to lose 2020. That’s my fear,” Nielsen said.

When ag ministers met last summer, he said, his interpretation was that there would be some solutions brought forward before they gathered again.

“It’s frustrating when we haven’t come up with anything new. This has been asked for some time,” he said.

Bibeau didn’t entirely reject the idea of changing reference price margins under AgriStability, but argued changing the limit would impact federal and provincial budgets.

“We thought that it would be more appropriate to start by doing a review of the programs and making sure that when we’re ready to put more money on the table, we would do it towards the right program,” she said.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, in a separate statement Wednesday, said a “continued lack of progress towards any significant program reforms leaves farmers without much-needed relief at this critical time, nor any certainty that assistance is on the way.”

A review of BRM programs has been underway for “nearly three years,” the CFA said.

“The fact that ministers were unable to commit to truly meaningful program reforms, while pushing this issue further down the road through further program reviews, suggests a lack of urgency and a continued disconnect between FPT governments and the realities facing farmers,” CFA president Mary Robinson said.

“Farmers continue to see increased trade and policy-related risks exacerbate already challenging weather conditions, threatening the viability of many farms and undermining the primary agriculture sector’s capacity for economic growth.”

Farmers across all regions, she said, “have clearly identified that a return to AgriStability coverage at 85 per cent without a reference margin limit presents a simple, interim solution that can be implemented immediately while longer-term programming changes are considered.

“Additional review and consultations only further delay this much needed response, leaving farmers with the sense that their governments are not grasping the critical issues at hand.”

Currently about $1.5 billion is dedicated to BRM programs each year, with AgriStability and AgriInvest the core programs available to producers needing help covering losses due to revenue declines or falling prices.

In each of the past two federal budgets, $39.2 million was allocated for AgriStability, which is paid for jointly by Ottawa and the provinces at a 60:40 ratio.

The cost of increasing the limit back to 85 per cent would cost an estimated $300 million, according to Bibeau.

It is unclear how willing the provinces are to increase the limits, given it would likely result in them paying more as well.

“I’m actually quite disappointed with some provinces,” Nielsen said, stopping short of naming names. “There seems to be a lack of support from provinces.”

Saskatchewan was able to get its main proposal accepted by the federal government and other provinces. The minor tweak producers can expect is a change in how private insurance is treated by AgriStability.

Private insurance will be able to complement AgriStability, being used as a “top-up” according to Bibeau, if producers choose to use it.

The federal government will also pilot a project that will use tax return information for those applying to AgriStability in hopes it will make it easier to apply to the program, which has long described as complicated by producers.

“It was one of the things we put on the table, so it makes me very happy to hear that the revenue generated from private insurance won’t go against the producers on their eligibility claim,” Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Dave Marit said.

Nielsen said it’s unlikely he or other farmers will jump to private insurance as a means to better accessing AgriStability, and questioned the new measure’s effectiveness in the face of consecutive bad harvests and accompanying increasing premiums.

The GGC, he said, will be trying to reach out to Bibeau early in 2020 to discuss the group’s concerns.

“I think we’re going to have to engage with other sectors of government to really stress the point that we need solutions,” he said.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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