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New guy on top

Canadian farmers welcomed a new man to the helm


March 7, 2008
By Marg Land


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Canadian farmers welcomed a new man to the helm of the nation’s Agriculture and Agri-Food port-folio.

Canadian farmers welcomed a new man to the helm of the nation’s Agriculture and Agri-Food port-folio.

Gerry Ritz, a grain and ostrich farmer turned politician from the Lloydminster area of Saskatchewan, was recently named the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and, with that position, the Minister for the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB).

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On the positive side of the appointment, Ritz at one time was actually a farmer, returning to the family farm in the mid-1970s after spending a few years working in sales. He farmed up until his election to Parliament in 1997. Hopefully he will have some understanding of the industry and the challenges facing farmers. On the downside, he refers to his job as a farmer as a “habit” and describes using off-farm income to “help pay for his farming habit.” Perhaps he views farming as a lifestyle choice rather than an actual business or career. Time will tell.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) did have some helpful hints for Ritz – a friendly kick-in-the-pants shall we say – listing “key challenges” he needs to be working on immediately. These include preparing for the next generation of ag policy, moving the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks forward and developing a Canadian labeling system. Just a gentle nudge in the right direction in case he becomes distracted by hometown concerns.

I’m not sure it worked. Hours after obtaining the appointment, Ritz was already being briefed on the appeal process surrounding the recent court decision involving the CWB. It seems apparent that his Prairie postal code means he’ll be dealing with the current problems affecting the CWB rather than agriculture policy development.

And, while CFA president Bob Friesen believes Ritz “knows the issues and will do a great job,” the leader of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) isn’t convinced of the Saskatchewan MP’s abilities.

“While we’re hopeful we can work with Ritz on a wide range of issues, his record illustrates a disappointing lack of understanding on some very basic agricultural issues,” says Stuart Wells, president of the NFU. His main concern is Ritz’s record on CWB issues and he hopes the new agriculture minister will take his portfolio seriously.

“We hope he will start working with farmers instead of against them,” Wells says.

Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter isn’t too fond of the new Agriculture Minister either – no surprise there. He’s predicting few changes for Canadian farmers.

“It’s clear he (Stephen Harper) sees his ministers as mere puppets to deliver his message,” Easter says. “What we’re seeing now is nothing more than a new face to deliver the same old song and dance.”

And, according to the New Democratic Party of Canada, while the departure of past Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl was “long overdue,” his replacement isn’t that fantastic.

“The fact remains that nothing has changed in Harper’s policies on key issues,” says NDP leader Jack Layton.

Certainly not glowing endorsements for Ritz.

I guess Canadian fruit and vegetable producers will have to join the long line of other non-grain growing farmers waiting to gain the ear of the Agriculture Minister. Considering the current tangle and mess that is the CWB, it may be a long wait.


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