Gerry Ritz knows how to make news, whether it’s at an Ottawa media scrum, or if it’s 42 C and he is standing over a barbecue — in a leather apron — cooking beef in China. After years of closed borders to Canadian beef, China had just opened to young animals.
That particular Canada Day was in 2010, and Ritz and then-governor general Michaelle Jean were determined to start getting the word out to 1.3 billion potential customers. Between them they handed out thousands of samples of Canadian beef.
Lifting his head from the grill, Ritz saw masses of people, and an equally massive need for food. In a snapshot, he now says, he saw the vastness of the opportunity for Canada’s farmers to feed the world’s growing population.
Since that day, Ritz’s passion to open more trade routes for Canadian agricultural products has popped up in one news story after another. There have been deals, retaliations, and negotiations, and along the way there have been domestic politics too, including the CBC taking him to task for having racked up the biggest travel and hospitality tab of any of his Conservative colleagues in recent years.
Trade issues continue to dominate agricultural news, and Ritz has somehow managed to shake hands through, around and over enough diplomatic stumbling blocks to silence most of his critics.
Country Guide talked to Ritz shortly after he returned from the recent WTO negotiations in Bali. During those trade talks, Ritz networked among the myriad trade alliances he has built over his years and his many travels.
He tells me about how, years ago, he gave a pair of cowboy boots, made from the ostriches he raised on his own farm in Saskatchewan, to the Russian minister of agriculture, forging a friendship. He talks about the small-farm versus big-farm debate he had with Tom Vilsack. He talks about how, after countless meetings on four trips to China, Ritz finally got the call from the minister, went out for lunch and finished the trade agreement.
“Getting deep into China, we have access that Americans don’t,” Ritz tells me.
Before writing this story, Country Guide talked with a panel of Canada’s top ag journalists, representing different publishers and publications. The consensus is that Ritz talks a lot. But it’s also a consensus that Ritz has done a lot.
In fact, in just a few years, the current Conservative administration may have made more changes to agriculture than any other single federal administration in the country’s history.
“There have rarely been more changes in such a short period in Canadian agriculture. You may not agree with what he’s done, but he’s done it,” says John Morriss, associate publisher and editorial director of Farm Business Communications, which publishes the Manitoba Co-operator.
After pushing through the monumental ending of the Canadian Wheat Board’s grain-marketing monopoly last year, Ritz hasn’t backed down.
Now, he’s looking forward to the CWB’s plan for restructuring and how they’ll maintain market share. During this past year, the CWB made the news with sweeping cuts to staff and office space, and significant investments in bricks and mortar on their handling side.
When 2013 was just new, Ritz announced a new federal agricultural support program, called Growing Forward 2.
The news hit the headlines with a bang, mainly thanks to provisions that cut payouts under AgriStability when farmers suffer moderate losses (technically, when individual farm margins drop to between 70 and 85 per cent of the farm’s adjusted long-term average).
Ritz says this was offset by an increase in coverage when farms need it the most, and more money was earmarked for innovation and trade development. “In order to keep Canadian agriculture on the cutting edge, investments must be focused on research and innovation,” Ritz says.
Ritz also wants to see the remaining gap be filled by private market insurance, and he has been working on ways to make it happen in this country so farmers will buy into it. “Insurance-based programming should be your first line of defence against any changes in market,” Ritz says, adding the qualifier, “Government may have to backstop it until there’s economies of scale so that it’s an affordable program.”
From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Federal cash announced for oat research, funding
Besides the GF2, the whole year seemed to be peppered with federal cutbacks and downsizing. In August, the Canadian Grain Commission cut its services due to changes to the Canada Grain Act and the Canada Grain Regulations, and it moved to a user-fee system. In past, the federal government covered about half of the CGC’s budget. Now, most CGC revenues will come straight from farmers and grain companies. “We still will be relying on their grading system,” Ritz insists.
Also, both the Prairie Shelterbelt and the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration programs were terminated, and the vast federally managed pastures in Saskatchewan were turned back to the province to either manage, lease or sell. It was a move that brought out the critics, including Canadian literary diva Margaret Atwood. But don’t expect Ritz to apologize. He won’t.
Ritz is also on side with how Ottawa is stepping back from supplying farm services. Many such services should be delivered by companies, he says. “We have to look at new funding models, with industry and government collaborating.”
In a similar way, Ritz strode into the perennial Prairie discussions around grain transportation. New federal legislation, he says, will “make the railways play nice in the sandbox,” being more accountable for the movement of cars and number of cars. However, with the bigger-than-expected 2013 harvest, the system is strained, and storage is bulging at the seams.
In mid-December Ritz also introduced Bill C-18, the Agricultural Growth Act, into the House of Commons. This legislation would amend not only the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, but also the Feeds Act, Fertilizers Act, Seeds Act, Health of Animals Act, Plant Protection Act and the Agriculture and Agri-Food Administrative Monetary Penalties Act. The bill would also amend the Agricultural Marketing Programs Act (AMPA) and Farm Debt Mediation Act (FDMA).
The government plans this August to sign on to the new international agreement for the protection of plant breeders’ right. Canada’s existing Plant Breeders’ Rights Act is based on the 1978 global agreement
Ritz says farmers will still be able to save and plant their own seed under the new law, but he believes the updates to plant breeders’ rights will see more investment in genetic research come to Canada. This change in legislation coupled with open wheat and barley marketing should encourage companies to develop higher-yielding varieties of grain, he says.
Ritz also plans to continue working on trade, chopping away at the non-science-based issues that get trotted out to sidetrack trade agreements.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulations under its 2008 country-of-origin labelling (COOL) law look like they will continue as the single biggest trade irritant for Ritz going into 2014.
The dispute boiled over in 2013 when the U.S. cooked up its own set of rules to meet the WTO complaint that favoured Canada’s position, leading Tyson Foods to say it would stop buying slaughtered cattle from Canada because of the high costs associated with COOL.
Ritz blustered back with threats of trade retaliation. “I said to Tom Vilsack, this is harming your industry, not just ours.
“It’s a political solution for a social problem, saving their small farmers,” says Ritz, frustration ringing in his voice.
Despite such contentious trade issues, Ritz says overall during his tenure, it has become easier for Canada to negotiate trade deals with other countries. “It’s like we’ve come of age,” he says. “Prime Minister Harper is like the dean out there. Everyone looks to him…”
Ritz also says that the editorial press coverage saying supply management is derailing trade deals is wrong. “Supply management is not holding us back,” he says.
As the Conservatives gear up for a federal election in the fall of 2015, Ritz says his first priority is maintaining trade routes. Second, he wants to continue pushing his agenda of innovation and self-reliance, partly through the value chain roundtables that have been set up for many commodities
After six years as federal minister of agriculture, Ritz hopes to be remembered as the agricultural minister who helped Canadians realize that agriculture is business, and that farmers must adjust to the realities around them and work on their bottom lines.
Canadian farmers need access to global markets, Ritz says, and they need a dynamic domestic market with more innovations moving forward. But, he repeats, “When I took over six years ago, our mantra was that it was going to be from the marketplace, not the mailbox.” He says it firmly. Clearly, Ritz sees no reason to change.