The local association, which represents farmers in the B.C. Peace region, has joined other member associations of the Grain Growers of Canada, as well as the provincial governments of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, in calling for more marketing choice for wheat and barley.
"We want marketing choice," said David Wuthrich, president of the BCGPA. "If we develop new markets or places to deliver our products, it has to go through the Wheat Board first, so it limits some of our marketing opportunities. If we can find a market that is better than what they are offering, we should be allowed to go there."
He and many other farmers support a "dual-market system" to replace the current "single-desk" approach where the Wheat Board is the sole buyer and marketer for Western Canadian wheat and barley exports.
"We want choice, it's not that we want them to disappear," he said. "This is their opportunity to show they are the best option, and so far they haven't done that. If they really wanted to go ahead, they should be looking for the best markets and getting us the best options."
He said the Wheat Board's focus on only marketing the highest grades of wheat has been to the determent of many farmers in the Peace who grow lower grades for livestock feed and other uses.
He added the current system creates an unfair playing field with the parts of Canada – Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and even the rest of British Columbia outside of the Peace region – that do not participate in the Canadian Wheat Board. He said, for example, he has customers in Vanderhoof who have delivered their grain to Washington State and were able to take advantage of higher prices and make a premium. He added he has been shipping wheat to Alaska, but had to obtain permission from the Wheat Board to do that.
Wutherich said while recent changes to payment programs have improved things, it still is difficult to get payment upfront for products delivered to the Wheat Board.
He said there is no monopoly on marketing canola, oats or peas, and those products seem to be doing just as well as wheat or barley. He added with the world becoming much smaller with advances in communication technologies, individual farmers can market their products much easier than before.
That opinion is not shared by all farmers in the Peace region, however. Allen Watson of Rolla, who just recently retired from the farm, said he feels very strongly that Western farmers need the Canadian Wheat Board.
Watson said having a single marketing organization puts Western farmers at an advantage over other jurisdictions because it creates a "sellers market."
"If we do away with that single-desk, operated by the Canadian Wheat Board, then whoever wants to buy our Canadian wheat and barley will have multiple sources to go to to get it, and do you think they will pay the highest price," he said. "No, they will pay the lowest price. It becomes a buyers market."
He said Canadian wheat and barley has remained highly competitive in world markets precisely because of the organized, single-desk approach.
"That's mainly because our system guarantees the right product at the right place at the right time for any of our global customers," said Watson. "They arrange the transportation of the grain to the terminals, they arrange for the ships to the terminals, they arrange the railcars to pick the grain up from the elevators – everything has to be done in a timely way."
He predicts without a single-window approach to marketing wheat and barley to the United States, there would actually be an increase protectionism by American farmers.
"It's an orderly marketing system is what it is, and if you open the borders up completely with no regulations whatsoever, then it becomes a massive dogfight, and it's the American farmer against the Canadian farmer."
"There are a whole number of other implications to losing the Canadian Wheat Board," he continued. "For example, we have our government guarantee of an initial payment. We have the government standing behind the value of these sales to global customers. We have the Canadian Wheat Board coordinating the use of producer cars, which saves farmers an average of $1,000 to $1,200 per car of grain they ship. All of that goes when the Canadian Wheat Board goes."
He added farmers would lose the ability to receive operating capital through cash advances.
Watson said changing the Canadian Wheat Board is "absolutely ludicrous," and he doesn't believe a dual-market system can work.
"Farmers have promoted the dual-marketing system, but there is no such thing, it's absolutely impossible," he said. "If they (the Wheat Board) don't have a commitment from farmers on how much to sell, how can they go out and sell it. They can't just sit there and wait for grain to come into the elevator, they have to know way ahead of time what they're marketing job is."
Prince George Peace River MP Bob Zimmer has taken an interest in the issue as a newly-appointed member of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food in the House of Commons. Zimmer said so far he has heard from a lot more local farmers in favour of a dual-market system, hearing anecdotes of opportunities farmers feel they are missing to market their wheat and barley.
"It seems to be the open market isn't as scary a place as the Canadian Wheat Board makes it out to be," he said. "It seems to be quite lucrative for farmers and seems to serve them well."
He said there are legitimate issues to be worked out, though, such as ensuring the capacity and cost effectiveness of rail transport for the Peace region. He said with an open-market approach, he believes farmers will find solutions to securing enough volume to effectively market and transport their products, through co-oping, for example.
Zimmer said his Conservative government is not out to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board.
"We want to see a Canadian Wheat Board and others survive in a healthy, competitive market situation," he said. "With the Canadian Wheat Board, there are just so many inefficiencies there, I think with an open market situation those inefficiencies can be worked out."
He said while his party certainly favours an open-market approach, he wants to hear from both sides of the debate.
"I don't want to go into that discussion with a decision already made on my part. I'm looking forward to hearing the arguments on both sides, and then bringing my voice to the committee and going from there. If a pro-Canadian Wheat Board farmer who is a constituent of mine can give a compelling argument, that is something I would love to consider."
Zimmer encouraged any local farmer who does want to consult with him on the issue to make an appointment with him through his Fort St. John constituency office at 250-787-1194 or through his office in Ottawa at 1-613-947-4524.