Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Supply management for dairy blows opportunities

Canadian dairy farmers could be producing and selling a lot more milk, but the convoluted politics and bureaucratic straightjackets of supply management are thwarting opportunities.

Take this account prepared by a fellow farm reporter, Ian Cumming, who was attending a court hearing in Ottawa when he ran into a well-informed Darlene Dessureault.

"She’s always worked in Ottawa, but the move from the Dairy Farmers of Canada building over to the United States Department of Agriculture in Ottawa has given her an unique perspective on the dairy industry’s political and business aspects. Including the actual dairy importations into Canada from the U.S., whose importation paper work she helps prepare.

"Dessureault is author of many USDA Global Agricultural International Network (GAIN) reports on agriculture. The ones released to the public, “are the polite ones. The internal reports, like on this case, are far more blunt,” she said.

The case she was citing was BalanceCo versus J Cheese and the Canadian Border Services Agency being held in federal appeals court in late May. She was there with several colleagues to keep tabs on “the precedent this could set.”

BalanceCo is a creature the dairy marketing board leaders and is designed to preserve the Canadian market for Canadian dairy farmers.

When the government moved last November to block pizza kits coming in duty free, “it was right in the middle of the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership trade) negotiations and the Canadian negotiators sure heard about it,” she said.

Dairy importations are going full tilt at the moment she, said. “The brand new Liberte Yogurt plant near Montreal is 100 per cent Import for Re Export (IREP) milk,” said Dessureault. 

Dessureault doesn't know why the Quebec government allowed a processing plant to be built in Quebec to process 100 per cent American milk because she didn't get any inside scoop.

But the Liberte plant "was hyped by the industry at the time as a major investment in Canadian yoghurt production, even though under the rules Liberte had no choice but to get IREP milk having no plant supply quota for yoghurt," Cumming writes.

Milk used to be freely available for yogourt production, but a combination of big Canadian dairy processors who feared they might be left short of rations prompted the marketing boards to sweep yogourt into the rationing system.

With a tight lid on rationed milk, Liberte had no choice but to import.

Cumming says Dessurealt "feels some type of promise was made to eventually process Canadian milk" at the Liberte plant.

What Cumming did not report, but is abundantly clear to me, is that Quebec and Ontario jealously guard their markets and won't allow one to increase milk production to supply a new processor if the other can't get an equal amount of increased milk production. In other words, they would rather both remain poor than allow the other to move ahead.

Quebec blocked Ontario's bid to supply milk to another new yogourt processor, Chobani, which planned to build in Kingston, so it seems obvious that Ontario blocked Liberte.

And neither province and its milk marketing board seems willing to strike a deal to increase milk production enough to satisfy either processor.

Cumming reports that Dessurealt said “Chobani came to me about a year before they announced they wanted to come and I told them that milk supply would be a problem. Then there was new plant quotas (rationing of milk to make yogourt) and a court case, so they just got tired of it all and quit.”

In constant contact with the company, Dessureault recalls Canadian dairy officials making public claims that they were going to attend a Chobani ground breaking ceremony in Kingston. “I thought, really?” she said. There was no such ceremony.

“Jacques Laforge (president of the CDC) came to us after and said they were going to take care of all the barriers that had stopped Chobani,” said Dessureault. 

“We said come back and see us when you’ve done that Jacques, so our people will know what the rules are for building plants and getting milk. We haven’t seen him yet,” she told Cumming.

I find the whole account dismaying, but typical of modern supply management in the dairy and poultry sectors of the Canadian economy.