SHOVELLING IT WE PEASANTS LEFT TO PAY FOR THE MAD COW PROFITS OF BIG BIZ
August 5, 2004, Rick Bell, Calgary Sun
Finally, someone speaks up. Lord knows, we can't wait for anyone of authority in the Alberta government to stick up for us peasants.
Yes, the province forks out $400 million of our money, supposedly to support ranchers and feedlots, then refuses to regulate the screwed-up market by setting a minimum price for cattle, allowing mega-multinational packers to almost triple their profits with none of the rest of us any further ahead.
With stateside slaughterhouses shut to us, two American-owned packers, Cargill at High River and Lakeside at Brooks, are really the only places the local cattle crowd can sell their live animals. The packers slaughter and then ship here and to the States where boxed beef under 30 months old can be sold.
Buy low, sell high and we cover the casualties with our cash.
David Kilgour was on the House of Commons agriculture committee when the packers wouldn't open their books and were held in contempt of Parliament.
David, an Edmonton-area MP, says nothing is illegal but the "outrageous" situation is "stupid with a capital S."
He calls it "a recipe made in heaven."
"The packers are abusing their market position and abusing it mercilessly. Cargill and Lakeside should hang their heads in shame. I would hope they'd have the decency to up their payments," says David, before lowering the hammer, suggesting the packers be forced to buy at a fair price.
"If we can't persuade them, then, by George, the provinces and the federal government have to do something. We should say: 'Look, Lakeside and Cargill, you have to pay a decent price or we'll legislate you pay it.' If they say it's communism, then they'd better start paying a decent price on their own."
"I'm about as free market as you can get, but there are only two companies buying cattle in any meaningful sense. They know the feedlots can't keep the cattle forever. They are sucking the lifeblood out of the industry and it will only get worse until the border opens. Something has to be done."
Kilgour says a decent price could be based on a formula. "Presumably the kind of competitive price you'd find in Idaho on a Thursday," he quips.
David also evokes an old idea born in the prairies, sharing the burden during hard times.
"The producers have suffered and are going to get hammered again. Talk to people. Bankers are threatening cow-calf producers and feedlots. As for the packers, we're not living in the 18th century or the 19th century. There is something called corporate social responsibility," he says.
"Where do they think they're going to get product if everybody is bankrupt? Are they going to have one big Lakeside Inc. farm where they own the cattle and the land and their employees can be the sharecroppers."
"But the packers don't give a tinker's damn."
As for Ralph? "He probably honestly thinks Cargill and Lakeside are doing a great job but I don't think he understands how much havoc is being created."
Nah, not our Man of the People.
Shirley McClellan, the province's agriculture boss, is silent as she's always been, stalling and sidestepping this stupid scenario every step of the way.
All Shirley does is scold critics as irritants insulting the industry, outsiders who don't understand the ins and outs of agriculture. We can, however, read a balance sheet.
The absurdity never ends. Now we find out some ranchers are considering Ralph's comment to shoot, shovel and shut up seriously, reluctant to take downed cattle to the testing labs, a move making it impossible to fully open the border.
And, since the province still doesn't know what to do with hundreds of thousands of excess cattle, and winter's coming, some ranchers may just shoot the extra animals right there on the farm.
Let us conclude with Mr. Kilgour.
"If Calgarians and Edmontonians and all Albertans get excited enough, something will have to happen," he says of fixing the mess made of the mad cow mess. Get excited? Dream on.