Saskatchewan’s curse revisited

Lawrence Solomon/Norm Wallace
National Post
May 11, 2001

Saskatchewan’s rural dilemma

Mr. Solomon’s column points out one of the myriad of problems in Saskatchewan and exemplifies Canada’s lack of understanding of what they are and how to deal with them.

One must first consider that about half of the farmers and more than half of the farmland under cultivation in Canada are in Saskatchewan, so we are not talking here merely about a regional problem, but one that is truly national in scope. Agriculture in many Western jurisdictions is in trouble, and those jurisdictions often deal with the problem by subsidizing production. Where a subsidy is paid by a taxpayer who does not consume the majority of the subsidized product, production is not a paying proposition. This is the case with some of the crops grown in Western Canada.

State intervention into the economy always results in inept deployment of resources. The payment of transportation subsidies to remove primary agricultural production from the prairie economy was sustainable when crop prices were very high, but it meant that the value-added secondary processing industries were not allowed to develop where they would diversify and stabilize the local economy. To make matters worse, deep interference in free markets by the Canadian Wheat Board resulted in a large portion of the economy becoming dependent on central planners to market their product. This is particularly true in Saskatchewan.

Some Saskatchewan farmers do, however, actually make money. Market forces have resulted in dramatic growth to our livestock industry, which is one obvious way of adding value to grains. Others grow “cash” crops (i.e., crops not under the state monopoly). Still others are not making any money. One of the key reasons is that Canada has dramatically reduced its level of farm subsidies, putting those dependent upon the state’s participation in peril. Mr. Solomon’s answer is typical of the far left-of-centre attitudes that put us in this mess: Let the state intervene further and acquire the productive asset with even more taxpayers’ dollars. This is an old socialist plan known as the Land Bank that died with the government of Allan Blakeney.

Mr. Solomon takes it one step further and, rather than redistributing land, he would simply see it removed from production and left fallow. He obviously does not understand what happens to land that is abandoned. Not only is the revenue that it generates (which is still the largest component of the province’s GDP) lost, but so is the tax revenue to the rural municipality. Worse yet, fallow land will quickly revert to spurious crops and weeds. There is then a huge cost to the state to maintain the land or compensate the neighbours for damage it will cause to their crops.

The answer is painfully obvious and simple: Let the people who can run profitable operations buy the land and farm it without subsidy, and keep our collective nose out of their business. Market forces will dictate what to grow and how to add value to it.

Saskatchewan has had the same size population for more than 70 years, and it has shifted strongly from rural to urban. We will only go forward when we realize that if what we have done for the last half century isn’t working, doing more of it is not likely to improve anything. It’s time to let the people with the desire, resources and ability join with us to play catch up with the rest of the continent.

Norm Wallace, Saskatoon

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