As one year draws to a close and the next begins it is the season of “New Year’s messages”. As usual most written about the beef sector will start out by assuring the reader that next year can only be an improvement before going on to list the unforeseen obstacles that arose to thwart the fortunes of producers in the year just passed. Can it really be a coincidence that year after year something happens that unfairly wipes out the returns a producer should have received for his hard work and investment? Despite what governments, the media and most beef producer organizations will tell you, the answer is no – it is anything but a coincidence. Proof of this is contained in the, Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Towards a New Analysis and New Solutions document published recently by the National Farmers Union. This presents a thorough analysis of our current predicament as well as suggesting some possible solutions.
The report charts 70 years of cattle prices from the great depression through to present day and when they are adjusting for inflation a clear pattern emerges. Those of us in the primary beef sector have not been crippled by a series of freak events beginning with BSE in 2003 as many suppose, rather, since 1989 there has been a systematic collapse in prices received by producers to values approximately half those that prevailed in the 50 years prior. The evidence documented is compelling – the demise of producer’s returns coincides exactly with the arrival of the two large US packers in Alberta and the era of corporate concentration that precipitated. The policy of increased beef production aimed at the export market has been disastrous for Canadian primary beef producers largely because there is no competition in the processing sector. Tremendous wealth is still being created in the beef production process but that wealth currently accrues to only a few very powerful players while the majority of us are left to fight over the crumbs.
Most producers will not be surprised by the findings of the report as they confirm what we have suspected for a while. The report also highlights the profound lack of curiosity shown by politicians and most beef producer organizations into investigating the true causes of the crisis in the beef sector. Time and again we are told that next year will be better, if “we” can just export more beef our cattle prices will improve – yet history clearly shows that this is not the case. Other excuses commonly cited for our plight are high grain prices, the high dollar, ethanol and SRM removal costs. The report conclusively proves that none of these are significant causes of our current problems. If producers want to improve their fortunes they must act on this report – it does no good to nod our heads in agreement and allow it to gather dust on our kitchen tables. We must hold our elected politicians and industry officials accountable for their lack of action and misinformed excuses.
The National Farmers Union will be organizing public meetings across the country beginning in January to share the report and develop possible solutions with producers. Everyone is welcome to attend the meetings and share their opinions. If we are to precipitate change we must take every opportunity to share this report with our fellow producers, other producer organizations, media outlets and politicians. The old adage that ‘information is power’ holds true – this report contains the information we need to improve our circumstances. Let us rise to this challenge and maybe we can look forward to a New Year’s message that won’t be lamenting another disastrous year for beef producers. Copies of the report are available to download from the NFU website at: www.nfu.ca or by calling 306-652-9465.