To suggest that the federal Conservative government are taking its rural Saskatchewan base for granted might be seen by some as a tad unfair.
Supporters will point to the end of the gun registry and improvements in other agricultural programs as evidence that this federal government is in touch with the needs and wants of rural people. They might even point to the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board as a single-desk seller as more evidence of how Conservatives better understand true core rural values.
It does seem evident that a lot of city people never fully understood just what it was about the CWB that was such an irritant to farmers. But must city people don’t ship and sell grain for a living, do they?
However, in that same vein, most politicians don’t farm for a living. And even if they once did, the actions of politicians are generally governed by what’s in their own political interest rather than that of those they purport to represent. So one gets a tad uneasy when one starts hearing from politicians about how much they truly understand the needs in a complex industry like agriculture and what’s best for farmers.
Some of the post budget comments from federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz were ample cause for that uneasiness. In fact, they have one wondering whether the federal Conservatives are truly as in touch with rural Saskatchewan as they claim to be.
The first issue is the decision to close down by the end of next year Indian Head’s Agroforestry Development Centre that runs the Prairie Shelterbelt Program.
“Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago,” Ritz told reporters shortly after the decision. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.”
And in a letter to the Regina Leader-Post responding to business editor Bruce Johnstone’s criticism of the decision, Ritz went further by saying “farmers run their businesses with a sharp pencil and expect their government to do the same” and the tree farm “has met its goal of creating shelter belts across the Prairies.”
Well, let’s aside for a moment that pencils have to be sharpened because of five years of Conservative minority government overspending largely aimed at buying Eastern Canadian votes. Why should the shelterbelt program be the first to go? And who is saying it’s not needed and that it’s somehow met its goal? Farmers I know still value and recognize its contribution. And why wouldn’t they?
Known for decades as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, the PFRA emerged out of the recognition that something had to be done to protect and conserve Saskatchewan soils after the dustbowl of the 1930s. But the tree farm goes back much further than that — to 1901 when it was the Indian Head tree farm. In that time, some 650 million seedlings have been grown for use in areas with little or no trees.
Yes, practices like direct seeding that now allows for stubble coverage to conserve moisture and prevent wind erosion have greatly reduced the problems of the 1930s. But so have shelterbelts and the simple fact of the matter is that farmers could and should do both.
After all, even those don’t that don’t buy into the notion of global warming causing hotter, drier farming conditions on the Prairies, surely we recognize the historic cycles of drought and recognize the devastation caused by wind erosion and unpredictable snow cover.
Adding insult to injury in a federal budget were cuts to agriculture research and pending closure of 60 federal-government-run community pastures.
Were the interests of farmers and ranchers taken into account here? Or are Ritz and the Conservatives a little less in touch than the claim to be?
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.