Federal government relief programs for grain farmers: rewards for the late adjusters?
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The Canadian Federal Government has introduced several major ad hoc relief programs for prairie farmers in the last fifty years, in response to various agricultural crises. Each of these programs has rewarded late adjusters – farmers who contributed to the crises by not responding appropriately to market or environmental conditions. Early adjusters who quickly and innovatively responded have been treated indifferently or penalized by the programs. The 1941 Wheat Acreage Reduction (WAR) program and 1970 Lower Inventory for Tomorrow (LIFT) favoured farmers who grew large acreages of wheat in the preceding years despite high levels of Canadian and world wheat stocks. Farmers who had cut production or diversified received less program money than the late adjusters. The Special Canadian Grains Program (SCGP) of 1986, introduced to offset low world prices in traditional crops, made no payments to special crop producers in its first year. Producers who cultivated below average quality land in a township or who planted traditional rotations regardless of, sometimes in spite of, climatic conditions in 1988 received much of the benefit of the Canadian Crop Drought Assistance Program (CCDAP). The 1989 Permanent Cover Program of the Canada-Saskatchewan Agreement on Soil Conservation will reward, at least in part, late adjusters who brought marginal land under cultivation, some as recently as July 1987, without regard for environmental consequences. Throughout the last fifty years, the delivery quota system, based on the number of acres farmed, has encouraged extensive farming techniques and the cultivation of marginal land. Farmers who practiced annual cultivation of export crops may have maximized short run economic returns given the combined economic and policy signals which were received. Farmers who have tried to farm according to the best long-term agronomic practices have not been rewarded through policy initiatives. Ad hoc programs which have tried to move producers away from traditional prairie crops and cultivation methods, especially wheat production, often have been poorly designed, underfunded and limited in scope. Fundamental federal government policies for Prairie agriculture, including the Homestead Act, the Land Survey, and the Crow Rate/Western Grain Transportation Act (WGTA) have consistently pushed Prairie land use in a single direction, encouraging annual cultivation and the production of grain, especially wheat, for export at the expense of most other types of agricultural production. A precarious cyclical economy has been one result, especially in Saskatchewan. Deterioration of a significant portion of the land base has been another. The provincial land assessment and property taxation system may have institutionalized this land degradation. The "Wheat is King" tradition is still alive and well on the prairies and in the minds of policy planners. Wheat will remain a major crop. However, governments which are serious about diversification in Prairie agriculture must begin to reward early adjusters – those who innovate and respond appropriately to markets and the physical environment. Federal Government legislation for the prairie region should be enabling, not disabling legislation.
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