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Wheat, barley single desks to end together: CWB

Ottawa plans to end the Canadian Wheat Board’s marketing monopoly on spring wheat, durum and barley crops simultaneously in August 2012, the board’s chairman said after meeting with Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz on Tuesday.

Ritz made his first-ever visit as minister to the CWB’s Winnipeg head office for a brisk 30-minute meeting to directly inform the marketing agency of the government’s plans to scrap its monopoly on western Canadian grain.

Ritz has previously said the Conservative government intends to pass legislation to end the monopoly in August 2012, but the grain industry has been anxious to learn details of the change — such as whether marketing of all three crops will change at the same time.

“That was clarified as well — that wheat, durum and barley will be treated on the same timeline,” CWB chairman Allen Oberg said in an interview after meeting with Ritz.

After the meeting, Ritz said August 2012 — the start of the 2012-13 crop marketing year — will be the “logistic end” of the monopoly. Asked if that means the monopoly will end for all three crops at the same time, he said more discussions are needed with the board and other groups.

“We have some more consultations with the industry, whether it’s the farmers themselves or the (grain) companies. At the end of the day, the legislation will reflect that and move forward.”

Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of spring wheat, durum and malting barley. Western Canada’s grain industry has operated since the Second World War under a marketing monopoly that requires farmers to sell wheat and barley via the board, unlike other crops such as canola.

“Optional entity”

Farmers who oppose the CWB have long urged the government to end the world’s last major agricultural monopoly, saying they want the freedom to find the best possible prices. Other farmers who support the CWB say the clout of its single marketing desk brings them the best, most reliable returns.

Three companies — Viterra, Cargill and Richardson International — handle most of Western Canada’s wheat and barley and could buy directly from farmers if the monopoly ends.

Ritz said after the meeting that the CWB can survive as a strong “optional entity” to buy farmers’ grain.

Oberg doubts the CWB would survive. “It would be creating a brand new grain company and would face the challenge of no capital base and no (grain-handling) assets.”

Oberg said the Wheat Board asked Ritz to hold a farmer vote to decide the monopoly’s future, as current legislation requires.

But farmers had that input in the May 2 general election, Ritz said, in which Canadians elected a majority Conservative government and supported the party in most rural, Western areas.

Prince Edward Island MP Wayne Easter, who was named Wednesday as the federal Liberals’ critic for international trade and previously handled the CWB shadow portfolio, recently urged Ritz to put the matter to a farmer vote.

“If you believe that the majority of western grain farmers who do business with the CWB want it destroyed, put it to the test,” he said, “hold a binding plebiscite on a clear question of support or opposition to the board, and accept the results.”

Manitoba’s agriculture minister Stan Struthers on Tuesday also criticized Ritz’s plans, saying “this is not the way to do business with farmers and their assets.”

Prairie farmers, Struthers said, “have clearly spoken; they want the CWB to remain intact… We support  the farmers’ right to decide the future of their own gain marketing agency.”

Oberg said it’s premature to say if the wheat board would seek legal action to stop the change.

(With files from staff)

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