Agriculture This Week - Change typically needs to happen slowly

When you have been penning a weekly column dedicated to agriculture for better than 30-years, there are themes which have repeated often through the years.

One of those has been the now long-disbanded Canadian Wheat Board which was much despised by about half of Prairie grain farmers and loved just as passionately by the other half.

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Interestingly the debate that raged here in Canada as the CWB fate was meted out now seems to be replaying in India as the national government there has been moving to open up highly regulated markets, and many farmers are resisting, fearful of change according to an article by Brian Zinchuk - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter (Estevan Mercury).

The debate might be the same at its heart, regulation to provide some market stability and fairness versus free access to the market with the best marketers prospering while a neighbour may not, but the spot in the history of agriculture in India today is vastly different from when Canada chopped the CWB.

As the article noted, in India agriculture is the largest employer of the Indian population, and most of those are small-scale, subsistence farming operations.

That is hardly the case here. While agriculture remains a major export sector, the small farmsteads of the early homestead days have long gone, with farm size growing in a rather steady arc since the end of the first great war.

Small Indian farmers are in a totally different world and one can appreciate they are fearful of change and why protests are said to have numbered as many as 250 million people, taking part in a 24-hour general strike in late November, 2020.

The deregulation is being touted to open markets, but removes farmers’ “guaranteed, timely sale and distribution, stop businesses from hoarding produce, keep prices at a fair level, and prevent small farmers from being taken advantage of by agribusiness corporations” as described it on Dec. 9, 2020.

Timely sales alone have to be enough to make small farmers shudder in terms of having money to survive on.

Now, with the better part of a decade of hindsight, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is suggesting that the Indian farmers might not need to be so afraid of what is coming, as Saskatchewan farmers have benefited from open markets, according the the article.

On Feb. 11, Moe said, “The path of agricultural reform being pursued by India is one that has been walked by Saskatchewan in the past. As a province we have moved from small scale subsistence-based farming practices in a highly regulated and government-managed production and marketing system to one in which our producers have the ability to manage and market their own produce."

The end of the CWB had little to do with the evolution from small farmers, a trend started decades early and mimicked in the United States and other major grain growing countries.

The evolution will happen in India. The big fish ultimately eat the small.

The question is how long the process is and how the small farmers fare on their way off the land?

Certainly deregulation changes things, as Moe noted.

“This has created tremendous prosperity for our province and literally helped feed the world through massive gains in production volumes and efficiencies. Most recently we saw records smashed with over $16B in agricultural exports in the last year alone," he said.

The missing number is of course what have profits been. It's great to boost production volumes, but if you are forced to produce more bushels because you are making less per bushel in profit, the equation skews in another direction.

The transition facing India is a massive one given the make-up of the agriculture industry there and the best advice is to proceed with caution and a well-thought out plan.

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