BY MARLENE CAMPBELL
I have a powerful childhood memory of playing alone in the living room of our old farmhouse while my mother worked alone in the barn milking our dairy cows and doing the chores. I remember the anticipation of waiting for my father to come home from a faraway place called Montreal where, I would later learn, he participated in meetings to establish an efficient modernized system that would give him and every other dairy farmer in Canada a fair return on their labour and investment. That scenario of my father being away at meetings, and my mother working alone, played out numerous times in my childhood.
It makes me feel proud to state that my father played a role in the modernization of the Island’s dairy industry, and in the development of the supply management system for the dairy industry of Canada, which lifted Canadian milk producers from the quagmire that American farmers currently find themselves in. U.S farmers experience milk prices below the cost of production, overproduction, loss of farms, investments, and livelihoods, as well as dependency on government subsidies - all consequences of the ‘free market.’
What I know is this: supply management never made my father a privileged, spoiled, rich, protected farmer that gouged the Canadian consumer, which is the representation so many neo-liberal economists, politicians, think tanks and media have put forth. He was a hard worker, who wanted a fair income, and was willing to advocate for equitable conditions for others in the industry.
Supply management, defined as the control of supply to meet demand, has been a fair and worthy system for the dairy industry. At its best, it gave our family, and every other dairy family, the security of a known income. That, in turn, allowed the cost of production to be covered, a workable return on investment, and a small return on labour, if the business was run efficiently. Supply management gave the farmer the ability to determine the level of risk he/she was willing to assume in expanding the business. It did not give protection from inefficient and poor business management, as so many critics of the system like to preach.
For Canadian consumers, supply management has provided a transparent transaction in which they pay only for what they actually consume and have the assurance of a highly regulated safe product on their tables. No Canadian that pours milk on his or her breakfast cereal paid for it at the store and then again in taxes as do Americans.
Beyond the direct benefits to the producer and the consumer, supply management has given Canadians much more. Dairy farmers are not an isolated entity. There are plenty of people who will never step foot on a dairy farm, but they are impacted by its existence. In the production of milk, dairy farmers purchase a wide variety of goods and services. A few of these are as follows: - livestock, land, crop inputs such as seed and fertilizer, sprays, machinery, vehicles, fuel, milking equipment, cleaners, breeding services, veterinary services, foot trimming services, processed feeds, accounting services, financial services, etc. They hire carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and other tradespeople.
Dairy farmers directly employ farm workers and underpin many other jobs related to the industry. A milk hauler pulls into the yard to collect the milk and transport it to a dairy for processing in its many forms. That dairy hires people for all stages and forms of processing, as well as for accounting, packaging, marketing, and transporting products to market. Then there is the retail sector. All those workers buy vehicles, homes, consumer goods, and pay taxes that build social programs, etc., generating further expansion in the economy.
The list goes on, but I think the point has been made. The managed dairy industry has been very valuable in its contribution to the overall Canadian economy and in particular to the health and stability of rural Canada. But that reality is fading fast. The market share numbers given away in the first two free trade deals, and the impending one, might not sound like much, but with a small population Canada’s domestic market is miniscule in comparison to our neighbour to the south.
- Marlene Campbell of Arlington has a degree in political science, is an author, a former news reporter and now works in the cultural sector. In the second part of her opinion article tomorrow, she examines the future outlook for the industry.