has seen this game before, but this time they may not have the
support of the ag. minister
As I listened to Alberta’s farm minister George Groeneveld addressing the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) annual meeting last month, the lyric from an old Jim Croce song kept rolling through my head. “You don’t tug on superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger. And you don’t mess around with Jim.” Maybe we should make that George.
He was more animated last year when he told the ABP delegates the cattle industry had to change; and as the official cattle organization they had to change too. He believes industry must find more markets to survive and with the U. S. plugging up its border, Alberta and Canada have to push their way into Asia and Europe. To make that happen, he says, producers have to be willing to do whatever it takes to improve the appeal of their product to overseas buyers and gain access to their markets.
If the industry wasn’t ready to change on its own, he was ready to push them along.
Obviously he didn’t think the ABP were listening. In June after consulting with the four other largest cattle groups in the province he introduced the Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy. That put some money in the pockets of every producer in Alberta, and envy in the hearts of producers elsewhere, along with the promise of more to come if they age verified their 2008 calves and registered their premise ID by the end of the year. New regulations to the Alberta Animal Health Act came into effect Jan. 1, 2009 enforcing mandatory age verification and premise ID on those who refused to do it willingly, and laid the first planks for mandatory traceability within Alberta.
By government standards, the pace of change in Alberta has been dramatic since June. The chairs in the provincial agriculture department have been shuffled to better serve the new priorities. More than $30 million has been paid out and more is to come. A blue ribbon advisory board of traders, promoters, producers and food manufacturers has been created to brainstorm the future direction needed to reach the strategy’s number one goal — market access. Regulations have been written, and passed, trade missions have canvassed potential customers and research has been funded.
“An incredible amount of work has been realized and we should all take pride in that,” noted the minister.
Pride is maybe not the word every ABP delegate would have chosen. In several votes they instructed their board to continue pressing for changes to the Alberta strategy. In particular, they say the producers they represent want the mandatory element removed from the requirements for age verification, premise ID and traceability.
Groeneveld remains convinced the time for voluntary programs has passed. “I know producers have concerns regarding age verification,” he told the ABP at the start of their meeting, “but we have heard time and time again from government and industry officials in Asia, traceability including age verification is simply not negotiable with them. We simply must have it if we want to expand current markets and we want to create new ones.”
The ABP wisely rejected a motion calling on the Premier to remove Mr. Groeneveld from the agriculture portfolio. Not surprisingly they did vote to retain control of Alberta’s $3 per head non-refundable checkoff which brought in $13.4 million last year.
The question now is, does Mr. Groeneveld agree with them? As minister he has the authority to make the checkoff refundable. And that is exactly what the Western Stock Growers, Alberta Cattle Feeders, Beef Initiative Group and Feeder Associations of Alberta are asking him to do. This Beef Industry Alliance and they now call themselves tried to negotiate a power sharing arrangement with the ABP last summer but were rejected.
It would be unfair to say these groups don’t have influence with ABP. Many have been elected to the ABP board from its cattle feeder and industry councils set up specifically to bring in outside organizations. But they seem to feel they are not as effective working inside an organization trying to represent all producers.
Besides, the alliance has now had a taste of what it’s like to have direct influence on a minister and his policies, and they seem to like it. So they launched their campaign for a refundable checkoff during the ABP annual meeting. I am told this would not affect the $1 national checkoff that funds the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, Beef Information Centre and Canada Beef Export Federation.
Of course there is always a danger producers, when given the choice, may decide to put a pox on all their houses and keep the checkoff for themselves.