Thursday, August 18, 2011

Any means to an end

The “save the single desk” campaign by the CWB is all about changing minds.  Not just producers’ minds – but the minds of the general public.  CWB directors in favour of retaining the single desk would undoubtedly like to get as many people from all walks of life to believe that the producer isn’t the only one with something to lose.  I’ve already heard calls to write to your MP and tell him/her how you support the CWB - and not the government - on this issue.  The hope is that if Conservative MPs get enough grief from their electorate, they will pressure Prime Minister Harper to slow down, or better yet, stop altogether.

So it was no surprise to hear Allen Oberg, representing the board of directors of the CWB, on a call-in show in Regina (620 CKRM) answering questions from both producers and city-folk.  But the following exchange blew me away.

Kate (caller):     I’m wondering if the wheat board goes, is there any guarantee all that good quality Canadian grain is going to be available for me when I’m buying flour, and pasta and all that sort of stuff, or is it just going to be grain sourced from anywhere that’s maybe not that great a quality?

Allen Oberg:    Well, that’s certainly a concern that has been raised.  ...  I think that in an open system, companies will be looking to source grain from ... any source and put that to any destination.  So that is a concern, that our quality system and that reputation that’s taken years to build up and maintain, whether that will be preserved.

.... There’s no doubt that the US produces far more wheat than we do here in Canada, but when we’re talking a high quality production – number one and two CWRS that market is a lot smaller and we have customers that specifically request that quality and are willing to pay top dollar for it.

Jim Smalley (host):   Kate, you’re the key part because you’re the consumer and you want that high quality wheat which is what Canada, and particularly Western Canada, produces.  It provides a beautiful loaf of bread, unsurpassed in the world.  So I hope, Kate, you’ll continue to buy prairie grain.

Kate:   Oh, I will.  Thanks.

Allen:   And I hope it’s still available.

Does Mr. Oberg really believe that high quality wheat won’t be available in Canada without the single desk?  Or does he just want the likes of Kate to think that?

I chatted with my contact at a major baker in Canada and asked him what he thought about Oberg’s comments.  He said they get the quality they order from the millers they buy flour from regardless of whether they are buying flour from US wheat for their US operations, or flour from Canadian wheat for their Canadian operations.  (And yes, sometimes they buy flour for their Canadian production that is made with US wheat.)  In other words, the CWB is not a factor when it comes to quality.

But I think most people knew that already.

Mr. Oberg, representing the CWB board, has started down a dangerous path, saying just about anything to sell people on the virtues of the CWB – or to vilify the open market.

In his recent blog (Aug 15th), Allen Oberg wrote about what he calls a “Rural Myth”:

The dual market is a western Canadian rural myth.  It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world and it won’t exist here.  A single desk is an all or nothing deal, and I feel like is very important that we are honest about that.

Yes, let’s be honest.  I agree that “a single desk is an all or nothing deal”.  But what we’re talking about is a “new generation” CWB without the single desk, a marketing agency offering unique value and services; most likely pooling.  A while back I wrote about how voluntary pools work and gave the Viterra bean pool in southern Alberta as an example.  Since then, I have been reminded that there are others in Canada successfully offering voluntary pools: Ontario Wheat Producers’ Marketing Board, Ontario Bean Producers’ Marketing Board, and PEI Elevators Corp.  It would sure make sense for the CWB to contact these groups to see how they do it before Mr. Oberg says they can’t exist.

The indiscretions don’t stop there.  The CWB paints grain companies with a particularly harsh brush.  Time and again the grain companies – particularly the larger ones – are vilified as the enemy, just waiting to take advantage of the poor hapless farmer. 

The CWB tries to get away with portraying big grain companies as nameless, faceless companies that will drive the price down so they can make more and farmers make less.  The people that work at the local elevator are friendly, honest, hard working stiffs just like the rest of us.  Their kids go to school with customers’ kids and they play hockey or ball together.  Most employees grew up in the community.  They don’t get up every morning and go to work with the intention of screwing farmers.  (The CWB Alliance produced a video where these companies are described as “thieving bastards”.  Mr. Oberg stated on his blog that he thought the video was “excellent”.) 

It’s amazing to me just how far they will go.  I guess the gloves are off and anything goes; unfortunately that means saying whatever they think they need to, whether it’s true or not.  And when the plebiscite results are announced on Sept 9th and they show a majority in favour of the single desk, you can be sure the rhetoric will be ramped up even further.

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