Dairy and poultry farmers in B.C. are watching NAFTA negotiations, worried that pressure to close a deal with the United States could end or change the supply management system they have built their farms around.
“We won’t be able to compete at 250 cows,” said David Davis, a fourth-generation farmer in Langley’s Milner area. He estimates to compete with the larger American farms in a unified market, he’d need at least 600 on his family farm. “Can you imagine 600 cows on the Yorkson slope?”
“It’s a very scary time,” said his wife, Nicole Davis.
The Davis family has been farming the same land since 1885, land that was originally part of the Hudson’s Bay Company farm, attached to the trading post of Fort Langley. It’s one of the oldest pieces of farmland still being used for agriculture in British Columbia, but the Davis’s say they’ll have to give it up and move to keep operating if a NAFTA deal ends supply management.
Supply management was brought in in the 1960s to end wild swings in price and availability of dairy, eggs, and poultry, said David, who farms with Nicole, their five children, and five full-time employees.
Every spring before the supply management system, there was a shortage and price spiked in the winter months.
“In the spring, you couldn’t give it away,” said Davis, who also serves as a Langley Township councillor.
Supply management created quotas for poultry, eggs, and dairy that evened out the price swings and has allowed small and mid-sized family farms to keep operating.
While supply management is sometimes criticized and blamed for Canada’s higher dairy and poultry prices, farmers like the Davis family say that American prices are kept artificially low by subsidies paid directly to U.S. farmers, whereas Canadian farms get no subsidies. Opponents of Canadian supply management have argued that the system itself amounts to a subsidy.
Within Canada, one of the most fervent opponents of supply management is former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who recently split with the party over that and other issues.
While there have long been arguments, both within Canada and between Canada and its trading partners about supply management, the issue achieved a new prominence thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump has been a frequent and vocal critic of dairy supply management, calling it “very unfair” and “another very typical one-sided deal against the United States…”
Trump’s comments on Canada’s dairy industry have not endeared him to the Davis family.
“If you give in to that, what will he want next?” said Nicole, who characterized the president as a bully.
Also waiting to hear how the NAFTA deal is finalized are the poultry and egg producers of the Fraser Valley.
“We’re all kind of on pins and needles,” said Bill Vanderspek, executive director of the British Columbia Chicken Marketing Board.
The industry employs many people directly and indirectly in B.C., Vanderspek said.
“We produce two million broiler chickens a week in British Columbia,” he said. Of those, 85 per cent are grown in the Fraser Valley.
Depending on those farmers are the feed mills, egg hatcheries, and local processing plants.
“It’s a tremendous amount of economic activity here in the Fraser Valley,” Vanderspek said. “Those towns would look a lot different without the poultry and dairy industries.”
While the bulk of Trump’s criticism has fallen on dairy, poultry is also supply managed. But Vanderspek said it isn’t as closed a shop as some may imagine.
Under NAFTA, 7.5 per cent of the previous year’s domestic Canadian production is allowed to enter the country duty free. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU also allows in some poultry duty free.
Even if supply management ended, Vanderspek doesn’t believe there would be significant savings for Canadian consumers.
“When you buy your chicken in the store, you’re paying what it cost to produce it,” he said.
With a possible Friday deadline looming, B.C. dairy and poultry producers were keeping an eye on the news and waiting to see if Canada makes any kind of a deal on supply management or access of American products to the Canadian market.
Vanderspek was hopeful that the federal government will live up to the assurances it has made over the past year that it won’t dismantle supply management.