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Wheat board's monopoly ends with uncertain Prairie future

Winds of change are sweeping across the Prairies as the Canadian Wheat Board's decades-long monopoly on western wheat and barley sales ends, but opinions are mixed on whether those breezes will blow good or ill.
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Canadian farmers can still market their grain through the wheat board, but now it will be voluntary.

Winds of change are sweeping across the Prairies as the Canadian Wheat Board's decades-long monopoly on western wheat and barley sales ends, but opinions are mixed on whether those breezes will blow good or ill.

The CEO of the board says his agency is facing the future with confidence.

"There are many reasons for confidence as the CWB forges ahead into this new era," Ian White said Tuesday at a news conference in Winnipeg. "We will add value to farmers. We have streamlined our operations.

We have negotiated new business arrangements that will help us succeed. We are ready to face this new marketing era."

The federal government passed a law late last year to allow western farmers to sell their grain to whomever they choose, whenever they choose. That change kicks in today with the new crop year.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was in Saskatoon on Tuesday literally counting down the last hours of the wheat board's monopoly. He stood in front of a blue screen that displayed a clock ticking down to midnight. "Tomorrow the doors to marketing freedom open wide," said Ritz.

The agriculture minister noted that farmers can still market their grain through the board, but now it will be voluntary. Wheat and barley farmers in Western Canada had to sell their grain through the board since the 1940s.

The change has the support of many farm groups that say producers can often get better prices on the open market.

But supporters of the monopoly say the open market will leave farmers at the mercy of railways and big, international grain companies. They argue the monopoly prevented producers from competing against each other for sales.

Kevin Bender, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said there will be little difference between marketing wheat and barley and what farmers have already been doing with other crops including canola, oats, peas and lentils.

"I really don't see much of an issue there with it at all, so many of us are looking forward to this now," he said from his canola field in Bentley, Alta.

Farmers didn't always know under the old system when the board would call for delivery, Bender explained. The change puts farmers "more in the driver's seat."

"We can do what we want with our property, sell it when we want and where we want and for the price we want."

The Western Barley Growers Association called it "an historic day" in a banner year of change in agriculture.

"It's been a long-standing bone in the craw of a lot of farmers and frankly a lot of farmers gave up the hope that it would ever be changed," said president Doug Robertson. "It's just amazing how difficult it was, especially when it was put in by government in the first place. It should have been easy to be taken out again, but man alive it was not. And every farmer I talk to just feels so optimistic."

But last week the National Farmers Union called it "a year of infamy in Canadian agricultural policy." President Terry Boehm said the Conservative government launched an unprecedented attack on farmers and democratic process.

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