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Published December 18, 2011, 12:00 AM

Saskatchewan farmers cheer new wheat board legislation

One of the farmers who cheered the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on western wheat and barley sales once hauled grain across the border illegally so he didn’t have to go through the marketing agency.

By: Jennifer Graham, Canadian Press

BALGONIE, Sask. — One of the farmers who cheered the end of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on western wheat and barley sales once hauled grain across the border illegally so he didn’t have to go through the marketing agency.

Paul Belcheff, who farms in Margo, Sask., was fined for that act of defiance, but legislation that passed in Ottawa late Thursday means he now has the right to sell wherever he wants.

“Now, I’m going to have the same rights to market my grain for the highest price, the same right as the farmer in Ontario has,” said Belcheff, who gathered Friday with other producers along with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz on a farm near Balgonie.

“I’ve been waiting for this for year,s and I never thought it was going to happen in my farming career.”

The new law becomes effective Aug. 1, in time for the next crop year, and will allow wheat and barley growers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Peace River district of British Columbia to sell their grain on the open market.

“This feels damn good. It’s been a long time coming,” Ritz said.

“First, they said it shouldn’t be done. Then, they said it couldn’t be done, and then, they said it wouldn’t be done because they’ll take us to court.

“But here we are — finally, you have marketing freedom.”

Ritz said the entire grain industry has turned a page in Canadian history.

About the board

The Canadian Wheat Board was created in 1935 as a voluntary marketing agency for prairie wheat. In 1943, what is referred to as the “single desk” was created, essentially a monopoly that meant all western farmers had to market their wheat through the board.

The board arranged for transportation from thousands of farms to customers in 70 countries. About 21 million tons of wheat and barley have been marketed by the board each year.

Supporters argue the monopoly prevented producers from competing against each other for sales and ensured better prices. They also say the new legislation leaves farmers at the mercies of the railways and the big, international grain companies.

Board opponents have wanted the freedom to seek better deals on the open market. Ritz said producers of other grains and wheat farmers in other parts of Canada already had that freedom.

“Finally, for the first time...in 68 long years, western farmers have full control over the crop they pay to plant, take months to grow and work tirelessly to harvest,” Ritz said.

“Today, you have control over the business where it matters most — at point of sale.”

The new legislation also removes eight directors elected by farmers to the marketing agency’s board. Ritz said those directors are now “on winter vacation.”

“Their role ceased to exist with the passing of C-18,” he said to more cheers.

There will be a transitional board made up of the remaining directors who were appointed by the government.

The marketing agency’s former board this past week asked the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench to declare the law invalid. An application for an injunction to put everything on hold until the case is heard was denied by a judge in a Winnipeg courtroom late Friday afternoon.

“We are pleased that the judge recognized that the law enacted by Parliament is operating,” Ritz said. “We look forward to the court date where we will continue to stand up for farmers and Parliament’s right to change laws.”

Allen Oberg, who was board chairman, said the organization had removed its name from the application that was denied. But the eight farmer-elected directors, who were also named as individual applicants, will continue with the case.

“We’ve all decided that we will push to halt … this and hopefully, we’ll have a favorable decision,” Oberg said in a phone interview from his farm in Forestburg, Alta.

“It’s not the end. And I think there’s an important principle here,” he said.

“If this legislation continues, it will be the end of a farmer-owned organization and ... really just a government-controlled grain company is what it’s been transformed into.”

Status in court

Oberg noted that a Federal Court judge ruled earlier this month that the minister violated the existing Canadian Wheat Board Act by making changes without consulting farmers. But Justice Douglas Campbell made it clear that his ruling was simply a statement on the government’s actions. He did not order the government to stop the bill and said he wouldn’t interfere in the legislative process.

The government is appealing that ruling, saying Parliament has the right to change its own legislation.

Ritz said the government will move ahead with the new law, regardless of what happens in the courts.

Board supporters said they will keep up political pressure on the government and continue the battle on the legal front.

“We’re not giving up just because the government has taken it upon themselves to nationalize our marketing agency and fired our duly elected board of directors. We’re not giving up,” said Bill Gehl, chairman of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance, a group that supported the board.

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