by MARY BAXTER
Alistair Polson, president of the New Zealand Federated Farmers, said Canada was one of the three worst regions of the world - the U.S. and Europe being the others - in terms of difficulty in establishing a market for New Zealand milk exports because of tariffs.
Even though Canada has shown a “strong interest” in opening its markets, its continued support of supply management gives “Canada a rather interesting position,” which ultimately reduces the country’s impact on trade talks, he said.
“I am not debating the rights or wrongs of supply management,” he said, but warned that with a 150-country position favouring more open markets, a reduction in tariffs would be likely.
Moreover, tight controls work both ways, he later pointed out, noting world dairy prices have gone from 25 cents U.S. a litre to 30-40 (cents) and “they (Canadian producers) can’t export,” explaining other countries have “kicked” them out of their markets because of supply management.
Mostly, however, Polson used a soft sell approach to drum up interest in what farming might look like without government subsidization while at the recent Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario conference.
He described a major transition in New Zealand’s agricultural sector in the mid-1980s that did away with government supports for farming.
Previously, “there were subsidies on just about everything,” he said, estimating about 50 per cent of the average farmer’s income came from this source. Other reforms in the agricultural sector included privatizing the advisory sector and introducing a cost recovery program for government services such as meat inspections. The government remains responsible for legislative framework and some basic research.
“It was a difficult time,” Polson said, identifying one of the toughest aspects of the period as a sense of urgency many farmers felt. People “felt they had to think of everything (concerning the transition) right away.”
Farms were lost but as the reforms were introduced, other costs, such as those for inputs also came down. Over the next few years a new focus on finding and serving niche markets breathed new life into the country’s agricultural sector.
Today, agriculture is thriving, he said, noting it counted for 17 per cent of New Zealand’s gross national product with most of the emphasis being on export.
Major products include dairy products, kiwifruit, sheep, wool and beef. Diversification into ventures such as vineyards, olive orchards, honey, hunting, fishing and adventure tourism is also growing.
On-farm, there have been significant improvements in terms of production, which he related to nutrition, breeding and pasture management innovations.
Despite some recent hard times, Polson said few producers would want to return to the subsidy arrangements of the 1970s and early 1980s.
“We feel we have a strong future,” he said. BF