Fall of a Giant

To be perfectly honest with you, I think they were pushed.

Most all of you involved in the agricultural industry in Western Canada have seen, by now, the news coming from Western Feedlots in High River, Alberta. For those of you unfamiliar with what is going on, the following is a statement made by Western Feedlots on Wednesday, 21 September 2016:

Western Feedlots Ltd.’s shareholders have decided to voluntarily wind down cattle ownership and cattle feeding operations. Western will continue to feed and market the existing cattle and after they are marketed, Western will be suspending feedlot operations. Western will not be hiring employees, or purchasing feed grain or feeder cattle after that time. Western will continue farming operations for the foreseeable future. Western’s shareholders chose this course of action due to the current high risk/low return environment in cattle ownership, which is inconsistent with shareholder objectives. In addition to strong headwinds in the cattle industry, the poor political and economic environment in Alberta are also contributing factors to this decision. Western would like to thank all our employees, suppliers and customers for their years of dedication and support and their continued understanding and cooperation.-Western Feedlots, Inc.

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Arial view of Western Feedlot’s High River, Ab location

Western Feedlots has been operating in the cattle feeding business since 1958. Largely, they are credited with being pioneers in the industry in Canada. At the time of their announcement on Wednesday, they operated on three locations (High River, Mossliegh, and Strathmore, Alberta) and had a one time capacity greater than 100,000 head. Over the last two years, operations at the Strathmore location have been wound down and the lot has been largely empty. CEO of the company, Dave Plett, has committed that farming operations for the company will continue for the foreseeable future, and commented that, if conditions should become more favourable, cattle feeding activities will be restarted.

The agricultural community is reeling from the loss of one of the single largest cattle feeding operations in Canada, and the effects of the closure of three large feedlots will only become more apparent as existing cattle are slowly sold over the next few months. Chief among these concerns as western Canada starts its fall weaning run is where ~100,000 head of freshly weaned cattle will go. Last year, Western Feedlots purchased cattle from across the country and fed them out for slaughter. That market has just completely and suddenly dried up. Second major issue coming down the pipeline concerns the availability of live cattle to supply two large slaughterplants in southern Alberta (High River, owned by Cargill, and Brooks, operated by JBS Foods Canada). Between the two plants, approximately 8,ooo head of cattle are killed every day, and the loss of Western Feedlots constitutes a major chunk of their supply chain. The ripple effect of the closure of these three feeding locations is somewhat frightening. This is not to mention, even, what new market cereal farmers will need to find for feed quality wheat and barley in the region. 100,000+ head of cattle consumed a lot of feed over the last few decades, and many farmers will be left without an apparent purchaser in the fall of next year.

The issue behind all of this is twofold and cited by interviews with Mr. Plett: The current conditions of the cattle markets in North America mean that cattle purchased as weaned calves have been losing as much as $600 per animal over the last year. Cattle are currently trading in a market which forces a “buy high, sell low” scenario. Hopefully, the bottom of the market has been found, and things will rebound, but how quickly and to what profit levels remains to be seen.

Second, and even more concerning than expected highs and lows in commodity prices, Mr. Plett mentioned the current economic and political environment in Alberta. Alberta used to be home to what was coined the “Alberta Advantage,” a set of policies set forth by the Progressive Conservative party in years past which served to attract businesses and investments from regions all over the world. Alberta has, until recent months, been viewed as an economic powerhouse, and frequently led Canada in terms of economic growth and attractiveness to investors.Then, in April 2015, the 40+ year dynasty of the PC’s was broken by the NDP, who have wasted no time in implementing an unending number of ideological policies designed to “fix” Canada’s “embarrassing cousin.”  On January 1, 2016, the NDP party implemented Bill 6, which, according to Plett, has cost Western Feedlots an additional $1000 per employee, to pay for public, not private, employment insurance. To be clear, prior to January 1, 2016, all of Western’s employees were covered by private insurance. Bill 6 was rolled out with the best of intentions, to protect employees in agriculture, but it has had nothing but resistance and negative views since it was first proposed to Legislature. The government has been accused by many industry organizations of a failure to communicate with the industry, a failure to listen, and a failure to properly implement the bill. To further the pessimism in Alberta, the Notley regime has doggedly moved ahead with an expensive and ill advised tax on carbon, which, when implemented, will cost businesses dearly for such things as indoor heating and business vehicles. The NDP did not include a Carbon Tax in their 2015 election platform. Finally, the Province has recently recommitted to move ahead without delay on increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour, a price many business owners, large and small, have repeatedly stated is too high and will lead to reduced hours and job losses.

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Markets for weaned calves will feel the pinch, as will packing plants in Alberta.

My view on this? The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Western Feedlots was perhaps too accustomed to being allowed to do it’s own business, they were too used to predictable government with a knack for doing what was best for business in Alberta. While cattle prices have certainly been a major factor in their decision to close, price fluctuations are a given in the cattle industry. We are talking about a company that has been lot-feeding beef cattle since lot-feeding beef cattle began, and has lived through successive market ups and downs, including the BSE crisis in the previous decade. Western Feedlots has always been prepared for market fluctuations. What Western was not prepared for was a socialist government hellbent on ideology and a consequences-be-damned approach to implementation. The perfect storm has brewed, and the largest companies are usually the least adaptable, the slowest to implement counter-measures, and can be the hardest to fall.

I currently live in Texas, where I am going to school. While I threaten my mother with staying here when I think it will get me something (love you, Mom!) my ultimate goal is to participate in the beef cattle industry in Alberta. This current government’s stranglehold on the economy of the province is extremely concerning for young people, in any industry. I am worried about what will be left for us to rescue in 2019 at the next provincial election? I wonder what the fallout will be from thousands and thousands of agricultural employees and oilsands workers fleeing the province like refugees, for places like Saskatchewan and Manitoba? The possibility that Alberta’s fiscal conservatives might not wake up and join forces to guarantee a replacement of the NDP in 2019 genuinely keeps me awake at night. I would use this opportunity to implore the Wildrose and the PC parties to lay aside their petty arguments and disagreements and realize that, on order to keep young business people in the province, we need to get rid of the NDP. In order to preserve the businesswe have, we need to get rid of the NDP. Markets in all commodities rise and fall, and the successful businesses can handle that. No business, anywhere, should need to shut down as a result of governmental ideology.

Bill 6 is Back- And scarier than before

I really had hoped that the Notley government had learned it’s lesson in late November and early December last year- Alberta farmers were not prepared to take their intrusive legislation lying down.  Bill 6 made news headlines for weeks and stirred an uproar the like of which my generation has hardly ever seen in provincial politics. You can read my original statement here: Bill 6 and the End of the Family Farm.  Cowboy under OHS

While perhaps not intended to be as overarching, socialist and far reaching as the bill was originally interpreted, farmers across the province banded together to let the Notley government know that we would not bow down to the bill by rallying multiple times in Edmonton and staging protest convoys.  Regardless of intent, however, the bill is still written as a heavy-handed, unsolicited piece of legislation which would does little to improve safety on farms, and paves the way for intrusive government OH&S investigation. Further, it essentially allows unions to move in and take over the workplaces of large farms, most of which are still family owned and operated, as they have been for decades.

Late last week, the consulting boards we were promised in early January have finally been put together, almost 6 months after the passing of the skeleton bill (which somehow went into effect January 1, without being fleshed out or amended…?). Six consultation groups have been assembled, covering the topics of: The Employment Standards Code, Labour Relations Code, two groups cover the Review of Existing Requirements and Exceptions, Best Practices for Agriculture, and Education, Training, and Certifications.  The detailed outlines of these groups are available here:  Alberta government website.

We knew these groups were coming, and we had been told to be patient.  The groups were expected to be put together in early March.  It is now late May.  Not unexpected from any government.  We were told these groups would be representative of the agriculture community.  They are.  We were NOT told that these groups would be chaired by union employees, lawyers, union facilitators and university professors.  We were NOT told that of 78 members across 6 groups, only 23 (29%, less than a third)  of them would be farmers and members of the AgCoalition , and the rest would be union employees, government employees, nurses, professors and many others whom have no viable connection to Alberta agriculture. (Wheat Growers VP disappointed with Bill 6 working group picks, only 29% farmers)103

How are we now to expect that these groups have the best interests of the agriculture community in mind?  How can I sleep at night and know that these people will come to the best conclusions, when two-thirds of every group is constructed of people who may not understand the businesses they are attempting to regulate?  Alberta agriculture is the oldest, proudest business sector in the province.  We have existed, farmed, and ranched since before Edmonton was Fort Edmonton, and certainly long before the province was formed 111 years ago.  Alberta agriculture deserves better than a 1/3 representation in the most influential ag bill of the new millennium. This is nothing more than a slap in the face to Alberta farmers, and a statement to the effect that we cannot be trusted to put together legislation that works for all producers.  We do not need to be told. by unions, by white-collars, or by the Notley government how to best keep ourselves, our families, and our employees safe. Bill 6 is not over, in my opinion. Indeed, the fight against it may really just be starting.

Bill 6 and Amendments

A Communications Breakdown

Earls

Luckily for Earl’s Restaurants, I was too preoccupied with final exams, term papers, and end-of-semester debacles to even think about having the time or energy to pump out a blog post concerning their now-overturned move to source Kansan beef.  Although I did not have the time to write about it, studying and procrastination go hand-in-hand, and so I was extremely up-to-date on all the happenings in my home province concerning the issue.

First off, I was extremely offended by the initial move Earl’s took in announcing their new source for beef would be “Certified Humane.”  On it’s own, this is a slap in the face to anyone who raises cattle that are not “Certified Humane,” as it implies that cattle not raised under the banner are beaten and tortured- which, of course, is simply not true.  Added to the label, though, was a caveat that Earl’s could not find sufficient supplies for “Certified Humane” beef in Alberta, or even Canada for that matter, and so had begun to purchase beef from Creekstone Farms, a company located in Kansas.  Not only did Earl’s slap me in the face, they offended an entire country of beef cattle producers, as they essentially said Canadian cattle were not raised well enough to grace the plates at their restaurants.  Just in case anyone is still wondering, that’s what set off every beef producer in Canada.

A second observation I had was that, despite the industry’s best efforts, there still seems to be an major communications blockade between consumers, retailers and beef producers.  After close to a decade of Agricultural Advocacy via social media, blogs, and outreach, the beef industry doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on the education of the consumers.  That’s how I see it, and here’s how I came to that conclusion:

Earl’s released a statement early in the whole scandal that stated they had surveyed consumers in their restaurants.  The survey, according to the press release,  revealed that the people who eat at Earl’s Restaurants placed emphasis on the notion that they wanted their beef to be raised humanely.  It was very important to them, and this importance was the driving force behind Earl’s decision. Let me say, that the consumer wanting their beef to be treated in a humane way is not at all a bad thing.  However, where the real issue comes in is the consumer’s definition of humane treatment.

Humane treatment in the eyes of the consumers who responded to the survey at Earl’s included cattle not receiving antibiotics of any form or for any reason (metaphylactic or therapeutic).  Dave Bursey, protein purchaser for Earl’s, said the following in a video currently posted on Earl’s website:

“[The animals] receive no growth promotants, no medication, at all, in their lifespan…”

This, to me, is an obvious failure on our part as the cattle industry to properly explain what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We have succeeded, to a degree, in reassuring people that hormones and antibiotics are not dangerous to humans when we use them in beef cattle.  However, we have evidently failed to say that their use in the  cattle we raise is not harmful to the animals (in the case of hormone treatments) and is actually beneficial (in the case of antibiotic treatments).

Perhaps the best thing to come from the Earl’s scandal is the fact that their move placed the Canadian beef industry in the spotlight.  For our part, I think we did very, very well in getting in front of the issues and conquering the misinformation that Earl’s was (unintentionally) spreading.  We had multiple industry leaders on TV denouncing the move from Earl’s, and the reaction via social media was massive, rapid, and, most importantly, accurate and educational.  We have been given an open door with this situation, and I  feel that the industry handled it extremely well, especially given the fact that Earl’s recalled it’s decision and announced it will continue to source Canadian beef as a result of the push-back.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, it seems difficult to keep consumers interested in learning about agricultural production once the “deliciousness” of a social justice movement has worn off.  I believe that, as an industry, we need to keep the pressure up just as we always have, but we need to increase the pressure on the media; we need to get the news stations reporting what we know to be true, rather than the thoughts of a reporter who is only looking for an attention grabbing headline.  I think the success of this whole mess is due in no small part to the presence of industry leaders and farmers on news broadcasts, morning show interviews and online articles. Those are the places where our presence is weakest, and I think, the places where we need to put pressure for accurate, informed, educated reporting.

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Humane Treatment is  firmly ingrained in the common production practices of the Canadian Beef Industry, even without certification.

ND(S)P: Non-Democratic Socialist Party

Alberta is entering the second week of town hall meetings and robust rural demonstrations against Bill 6. Across the province, from Red Deer to Grande Prairie and south to Okotoks and Medicine Hat, the farmers and ranchers of Alberta and their supporters are trying desperately to make their voices heard. As it progresses, however, it’s  becoming more and more obvious that the Minister of Labour, Lori Sigurdson, the Premier, Rachel Notley, and the Agriculture Minister, Oneil Carlier, are completely uninterested in what people have to say.

Two of the three have made multiple appearances at rallies across the province, but Rachel Notley is still in Paris discussing the infinitesimally small effect Alberta will have on Global Warming by eliminating coal power (and displacing hundreds of jobs in Stettler, Alberta alone). Carlier and Sigurdson claim they are listening to the people, they claim that they will be introducing amendments to Bill 6. As yet, we don’t know exactly what those amendments will be, how they will affect us, or when they will come into place! It has become increasing obvious that the NDP government is hellbent on passing this legislation whether the people like it or not, which, for a party called the New Democrats, is extremely undemocratic. Alberta has not seen this level of political upheaval in decades, and especially not from the rural areas of the province. Buses are being organized to ship protesters to the Alberta Legislature, convoys ten kilometers long by some estimates are arriving at town hall meetings, and facebook groups and twitter feeds are alive and buzzing with the indignation of the entirety of the rural population!

 

And what do we hear from Edmonton? “This bill will pass this sitting!” claims the Premier from Paris, “We appreciate your input and we would like to continue the conversation…” says Sigurdson. The part the Minister left out was that the conversation didn’t matter, that the bill would be passed without clear amendments, and that nothing could be done to stop that. That, Honorable Minister, is not how a democracy works.

If we were going to do this democratically, the NDP would scrap or table the bill, as recently suggested in debate by the Alberta Party leader. If we were going to do this democratically, we would have already consulted with the people it would affect, understood and listened to their concerns, and placed the appropriate exemptions into the bill BEFORE it was ever tabled for discussion. Evidently, the NDP forgot to add the S in their acronym for the Non-Democratic Socialist Party.

The NDP, or NDSP, if you prefer, has claimed miscommunication, shown inept leadership, created a culture of passing blame to the party lackeys sent to the initial town halls in place of MLA’s, and has repeatedly shown they don’t give two potatoes for the opinion of an entire industry. They started this fight, and the farmers and ranchers of Alberta will not ever forget it. If there’s two things that rural people are good for, its stubbornness and remembering things. The NDP has poked a dragon, and the dang thing sure woke up. All I can do from Texas right now is encourage peaceful demonstrations, encourage people to not give up, pray for all involved in the issue, on both sides, and keep writing my MLA, the Ministers, and the Premier. I would ask that you do the same. If we are loud enough, for long enough, we might have a chance of having a say.

 

How to Fight for Amendments to Bill 6

Yesterday, I posted about the intrusive, bureaucratic nature of Bill 6, a bill which the provincial NDP feel is necessary- even though they don’t know why. Today, I want to encourage everyone who reads this, no matter how you feel about the bill, to exercise their democratic rights and tell their Member of the Legislative Assembly what their thoughts are about Bill 6 (and while you’re doing that, throw in your comment on the Carbon Tax initiative as well).

This link lists, alphabetically, the names and emails of every MLA in Alberta. Even if your MLA is NDP (ESPECIALLY if your MLA is a member of the NDP), please send them something stating the importance of making amendments for farms and ranches in Bill 6.

Members of the Legislative Assembly Contacts

Additionally, I would encourage you to contact the Premier, Rachel Notley, with the same concerns:

premier@gov.ab.ca

Finally, this survey has been posted to the Alberta Government website. Please take 20 minutes of your day and fill it out to tell the MLA’s that Bill 6 is not appropriate as it is written and it must be amended.

Government Survey

When writing emails or making calls, be sure to have talking points about what you do and do not like about Bill 6. Perhaps, if enough of us participate and contact our MLA’s, we may be able to make the appropriate amendments to protect the privacy and autonomy of farming and ranching families all across the province. Please, ensure your children can learn how to move cattle, drive tractor, and combine before they need to take over the farm. Educating the next generation of farmers is essential to the perpetuity of farming and ranching in Alberta.

PLEASE TELL THE PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT TO STAY OUT OF OUR FAMILIES!

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Bill 6 and the End of the Family Farm

 

The provincial NDP government in Alberta is taking serious steps to implementing Occupational Health and Safety laws on family farms in Alberta. This is a disastrous decision that affects 98% of all farms in the province.

 

Farms do not fall under the umbrella of small businesses, large business, corporations, partnerships or any other business type. They fall under the category of lifestyle. Unfortunately for the farmers of Alberta, this lifestyle also happens to be a business. Bill 6, which will end the exemption of farms and ranches in Alberta from OHS, will also impact the lifestyle of thousands of Alberta’s families.

The premier does not seem to understand that farms operate under very, very different conditions than any other business, small or large. There is no such thing as an 8 hour work day or a 40 hour work week. There is no such thing as “do it tomorrow, wait for the snow to stop, the rain to dry up.”

Farming and Ranching in Alberta is dependent on weather, to an extent which is almost incomparable in any other industry. Almost all of the work done in agriculture revolves around weather. Farmers cannot quit planting, spraying, haying, baling, combining, stacking, fencing, calving, lambing, milking or feeding when their OHS 8 hour workday is over. The weather is coming, and the work needs to be done. It is not unheard of for farmers to put in 20, 25, and 30 hour days during peak times of the year so that their crops and their livestock are safely planted, safely harvested, safely fed, safely born, to ensure that the farm will have an income. OHS does not take into account the exceptional conditions that farmers work under, and farmers cannot be expected to adhere to arbitrary rules when the profits of their farm may be laying in a field or freezing in a snowbank.

The premier also does not seem to understand that 98% of farms are owned and operated by families, who also live on the land they use for their income. Family is perhaps the greatest and most sacred area of life for any person. OHS would enact laws that dictate how, when, and where children of farmers can be taught to work on the farm. This is, at the surface, an attempt to keep children safe on the farm, a noble cause, no argument. However, in reality, it affects the manner in which the family can prepare the next generation to take over the keys to the farm. Children may not know how or have been allowed to operate equipment before it becomes necessary for them to do it, under OHS law. The motto of 4-H Alberta, a youth agricultural program which encourages agricultural education, is “Learn to do by doing.” How can children learn to drive tractor, move cows, birth calves, plant seed, bale hay, or do any other farm chore, if the Alberta government won’t allow their parents to teach them?  Again, at its most basic, this portion of the law is respectable, but the implications interfere with the family unit, which is an untouchable area for governments for a multitude of reasons.

OHS does not take into account that a great deal of the work that is done in agriculture is done in a community-oriented fashion. My neighbour, under OHS law, would need to be compensated for any time they might spend helping me move cattle, fix fence, or bring in the barley. In return, they would need to provide coverage for me when I reciprocate the favour. How does this work? Who is going to pay for it? The farmer certainly cannot afford to cover community volunteerism! The culture of agricultural communities has been completely overlooked by the provincial NDP, and it is liable to be completely destroyed if Bill 6 passes un-amended.

Finally, as with all legislation passed by NDP governments across the country, who will pay for the new government workers required to process several tens of thousands of new OHS files that this bill will create? Who will compensate the additional inspectors required to cover literally every square mile of Alberta, looking for violations, on those several tens of thousands of new OHS sites? The taxpayer, the farmer, the rancher. Not only will Bill 6 severely damage a culture, thousands of farming families, and the agricultural industry in Alberta, it will cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every year in wages, travel costs (farms are very far apart) and vacation time for these new government employees.

Premier Notley, this Bill is a disaster in the making. Rather than rushing it through legislature with no industry consultation, ask the families of the farms and ranches in Alberta who will be severely affected what they would like to see. I know we all want safer farms, fewer accidents, and no deaths, but help us achieve that with educational programs in rural schools, and programs to help farmers cope with demanding hours. Don’t subject an entire industry, which literally feeds the rest of Alberta, to rules which will effectively destroy family structures and businesses all over the province.