Ian Bell Brandon
The Western Producer
November 9, 2000
Lawrence Solomon thinks the best way to help Canadian farmers is to let them help themselves. He advocates slashing farm subsidies. Such a move likely would mean fewer farmers, but Solomon suggests those who remained would be more efficient, diversified and attuned to what consumers want.
“You will wither on the vine with government,” he told farmers gathered in Brandon, Oct. 26-27 for a conference on recapturing wealth.
“Get close to your customers, get close to your roots and you will thrive.”
Solomon, a Canadian environmentalist living in Toronto, pointed to the New Zealand experience to back his position. He said drastic cuts were made to farm subsidies there in the mid 1980s. It was expected 8,000 farmers would fail without the government payments. But instead, only 800 farmers were forced to exit the industry, Solomon said. Without subsidies, marginal land was taken out of production, water quality improved and farmers looked more closely at their costs, resulting in less fertilizer use. Land use diversified, new products were developed and farmers established closer ties with consumers.
“The most dramatic change in New Zealand is that organic growth is up. It’s up dramatically.”
The adjustment was not easy, conceded Solomon. However, there also had been problems while farmers collected subsidies. Soil erosion was rampant and the quality of farm produce deteriorated, he said.
“They (farmers) used to be heavily dependent on government. That heavy dependence hurt the economy, it hurt the government and it hurt the farmers.”
Solomon was one of several speakers invited to the Brandon conference to stir discussion about ways to improve farm and rural economies. He told producers there is an enormous wellspring of appreciation in Toronto toward farmers. But he cautioned that public attitude is fickle. Consumers are looking for quality, choice and an assurance the food they eat is safe. They also are paying more attention to how farming affects the environment. Scrutiny follows events such as the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ont., water.
“Soon there’s going to be a lot more concern about farm practices. When that happens, public attitudes will change very quickly.”
Globalization has shifted power out of the hands of government, said Solomon, and into the hands of consumers. That consumer clout will influence policies that affect producers. Government now is focusing more on technology and the opportunities there. Cities, not rural communities, are considered the engines of the economy, he said.
“Agriculture is not an economic powerhouse. It is a niche in the Canadian economy.”
Don Dewar, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said Solomon failed to mention that government support continues for New Zealand farmers. There is still heavy support, Dewar said, but the money is spent on advertising and promoting the country’s farm produce.
“We only heard half the story.”
Bill Morningstar, a producer from Goodlands, Man., took exception to Solomon’s suggestion that farmers should think twice before jangling the pot for government support.
“To me he’s as phony as a $3 bill. He’s just a phony.”
Morningstar said environmental groups also are a draw on the public purse since contributions to those groups are often tax deductible. The resulting tax writeoffs and tax shelters probably cost the government as much money as support payments to farmers. Morningstar challenged Solomon’s perception of agriculture’s importance to the economy.
“What he was saying was we don’t need farmers in Western Canada. What would we have if we didn’t have agriculture in Western Canada?”
The farmer believes New Zealand’s producers received tax concessions to compensate for the loss of subsidies.