Thursday, November 8, 2012

Will the real pasture patrons please come forward?

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
The provincial government has said that they have consulted with the PFRA grazing patrons and with the livestock industry. They say they will only sell or lease the 62 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan to “patron groups.” I want to trust our elected representatives and they no doubt feel they are doing the right thing with the pastures, but I am having trouble figuring out what they mean when they talk about pasture patrons.

I have spoken to people who have had cattle recently on a PFRA pasture and they say they were not contacted by the provincial government to get their thoughts on how the pastures should be handled once they are transferred to the province. My last post was based on a conversation I had with a patron from Colonsay, Joanne Brochu.

One estimate I heard says that there were 2800 PFRA pasture patrons in the system. Most of those would be in Saskatchewan. Has anyone polled them to see what they would like to see happen with this land?

Now, I am not a livestock producer and my experience with cattle is limited to watching the neighbour’s steers and heifers graze our little bit of native prairie, but as anyone who reads this space will know, that shortcoming has never stopped me from trying to figure out what is going on in the beef production world.

So, with that half-assed disclaimer tucked into my boots, I will wade in. And as usual, I hope to hear from people who can correct me if any of what I am about to say is way out of line.

From what I am given to understand, the average PFRA pasture patron has in the past usually been a small to medium-sized livestock producer. Many of them mixed farmers who have fewer than 300 head of cattle. Although the system may have recently gotten away from its original commitment to also help out younger producers--these days young cattlemen are rare as hens’ teeth--there has always been a sense that these publicly owned grasslands had a mandate to provide access to affordable grazing for those who need it most: smaller producers and those who are just getting started.

If the PFRA pastures, some of the best maintained grasslands anywhere in North America, are sold or leased out to private interests, that mandate will be gone. Instead of helping smaller producers who need it most, the pastures will be controlled by those who are already doing quite well. In effect, the transfer of the 62 PFRA pastures from the Federal government to Saskatchewan will greatly accelerate an industry rationalization process that has been underway for quite a while.

badly managed private pasture

Regardless of what party is in power, agriculture policy at every government level, whether it is about grain production or meat production, has strongly shifted away from any pretense that the little guy matters and toward the “go big or go home” mentality that now dominates the landscape. Take a look at recent Stats Canada figures showing that 2.6% of Canada’s farms bring in $1 million or more in revenue and produce 40% of total receipts for the nation’s agriculture. But while the number of million dollar farms rises, we are losing farms at a ferocious rate. From 2001 to 2006, the number of farms in Canada dropped by 7.1%. We lost 17,000 in that five year period! We need more farms, not less if we want to raise food in healthy sustainable ways that serve our communities and landscapes.

How does this relate to the pastures being sold or leased to private groups? Well, no one will be surprised if we find out that the “patron groups” who manage to put together the funds to purchase or lease the PFRA pastures are well financed and large operators. Some of the buyers will undoubtedly have strong positions within the supply chain that runs between the pasture and the export market or your dinner plate. By that, I mean the feedlots that “finish” the cattle before they are shipped either to foreign slaughterhouses or to the two meat packers that provide virtually all of Canada’s beef. Those two corporations, however, are foreign entities too. Cargill, one of the planet’s biggest agricultural multi-nationals, runs one, and the other, XL foods of recent e. coli infamy, is being taken over by the world’s largest beef processor, JBS, which subsumed the American company Swift Meats in 2007 and kept on going without a pause.

The only people earning big money in the beef market these days have found ways to get large enough to take advantage of a system that is designed to make JBS and Cargill very wealthy while providing our trading partners and Canada with relatively cheap meat. (I.e. cheap relative to disposable income.) Some are feedlot owners, some are investors and land-owners who finance large feeder-cattle grazing operations, and some are simply cattlemen who have a lot of land and cattle. Many of these folks are doing well, in part because they have followed the cues and incentives that ag policy has provided, and in part because they have found a niche in the system that works for them. One might congratulate them for their success, but that would be superfluous because the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame has already done that. They are often the ones who get appointed to boards and committees established by government or industry. They become the presidents and chairs of organizations that end up speaking for all cattlemen, including the silent majority who don’t have time or inclination to get involved in politics and industry-level lobbying.

These are the men--and yes, almost all of them are men--who get called in to speak for the cattle industry at times like this. They may know a lot more about managing a feedlot, running spread sheets, or lobbying for trade deals with China than they do about delivering a breach calf or identifying invasive plants, but they somehow are the ones who end up calling the shots on how Canada’s grasslands are used by and allocated to cattle producers.

In the end it comes down to this: the private sale or lease opportunity on offer by the Provincial Government may appeal to well-financed and well-connected larger players in the cattle industry's supply chain, but it will do nothing but further marginalize the average patron of these pastures, the independant cow-calf operators who may need some extra grass now and then and the small to medium-sized cattle operations depend on the pastures every year.

And that means your uncle and aunt who have been using the local PFRA pasture will find it that much harder to keep going in a business that is being tilted in favour of the industry’s big players and the foreign interests who end up delivering the cheapest hamburger and steak possible to a store near you. Which brings up another story we are not hearing about--it is easy to point to the industry, but its big winners are only giving us what we want: cheap, tasty meat. The buck ultimately stops with the consumer. If we want to take better care of our grasslands, and sustain the PFRA and other ecologically sound grassland use, we have to begin paying for the full ecological costs of eating high on the food chain.

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood


  1. You have hit the big nail on the head. Is there one news outlet that would carry your blog? Maybe Sun News.

  2. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I've never tried finding a news service to take some of these posts.


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