Farmers forced to reckon with the whims of China as diplomatic spat drags on

Canadian Farm NewsUncategorized

By: Toban Dyck

I farm in central Canada, on the northern tip of the Great Plains, in an area surrounded by gravel, forest and cropland. Southern Manitoba is my home. It’s rural.

It’s difficult to comprehend that the fate of the markets we depend on rests in the hands of a country so ideologically different than our own, so geographically far from us, so politically unfamiliar and so poorly understood.

That my prairie existence is tied in any way to the whims of a communist government across the planet is both baffling and a poignant reminder that a successful agricultural sector requires a deeper understanding of this world and its different nations than our current government is exhibiting.

China has pushed the subject of Canada’s agricultural industry into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, and it’s an awkward fit.

“Our federal strategy is designed for our domestic audience,” an acquaintance, who previously worked as the Asia correspondent for a major Canadian news outlet, put it to me recently. “It will not influence China in any way. We will explain with science to a country that for years called smog ‘fog and dust,’ refuting its actual existence despite it choking out the stars at night. Science is something the state decides; not scientists.”

China is very much an unknown quantity — an unknown quantity farmers are now being forced to reckon with. China will be on the docket in every coffee shop in Canada.

Our opinions of China are folkloric, or, for those who have visited the country as tourists, they’re most likely endearing, even spectacular.

But those who have glimpsed China’s inner workings and have an understanding of its deeply rooted communist power structure, which has a near photographic recollection of history, expect the current diplomatic tug of war will continue for a while.

For us, for example, the Harper government’s raising of concerns over China’s human rights record seems like old news.

But not for China.

“For China, the insults of the West are like yesterday,” my acquaintance said. “For the leaders of China, who are very connected to the past through lineage, this is something that still makes them furious.”

The machinations at work between Ottawa and Beijing are giving agriculture columns inches above the fold, which is a good thing, but they are playing out as a superficial soap opera full of sidestepping and eggshell-walking. And in this case, the soap opera’s developments are affecting real lives.

Grain Growers of Canada, and other national soybean and canola groups are doing what they can to right this ship. The agricultural sector has always been a global industry and farmers are used to shouldering trade wars while buckling down and continuing to grow crops. We’re still growing canola. We’re still growing soybeans. As much as there is uncertainty in the farming community, there is a degree of comfort with this heavy subject matter. It’s part of agriculture.

Trudeau announced changes to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s advance payments programming, raising loan limits from $400,000 to $1 million, $500,000 of which is interest-free for canola growers.

Farmers growing other commodities are eligible for the cash advance, but their interest-free portion caps at $100,000. The industry would like to see this rise to $500,000, as well, given that the trade war has weakened most of the commodities market.

Canada’s ag sector is not as subsidized as it is in the U.S.. We have federal business risk management programs, such as AgriStability, meant as a cushion during hard times. These programs are not accessible to many. They are complex and the stipulations for coverage are sometimes too specific to qualify for the farms that need the insurance.

Canada is dealing with a country it doesn’t seem to understand, on subject matter it doesn’t seem to understand. If Canada treats this as a sideshow or corollary to the trade war raging on between the U.S. and China, it will surely last a long time.

The wheat on my farm is about four inches above the ground. The soils in our area of the Great Plains have historically grown good wheat crops. To farm well is to appreciate the history of your soils. I can’t help but think the same applies to diplomacy.