Manitoba’s agriculture minister isn’t saying whether his province will or will not sign on to the federal government’s proposed changes to AgriStability, but he has plenty of concerns about the proposal put forward by his federal counterpart last week.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau proposed dropping the reference margin limit and increasing the compensation rate under AgriStability from 70 to 80 per cent on Friday — the final day of the annual federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) agriculture ministers’ annual meeting. The changes would apply for the 2020 through 2022 calendar years, after which the current Canadian Agriculture Partnership agreement between the federal and provincial governments is set to expire.

Farm groups have been lobbying the ministers to update AgriStability and the business risk management (BRM) programs for years, but Manitoba Ag Minister Blaine Pedersen says the specific proposal from Bibeau was tabled too late in the meeting for provinces to provide an answer before the virtual meeting ended.

“We had no advance notice that this was coming out, so it’s up to the provinces and territories to go back to their respective jurisdictions to find out what the financial impact is,” Pedersen told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday, echoing comments about the tight timeline from Alberta Ag Minister Devin Dreeshen.

Pedersen says his office estimates the changes would cost the Manitoba government around $15 million per year, based on the 60/40 cost-sharing formula between the federal and provincial governments and a provincial AgriStability enrolment rate of around 40 per cent. He said Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are all taking the federal offer back to their respective governments, but he did not provide any timeline for when his department would forward the proposal to the provincial finance department, nor when a decision would ultimately be made.

“It doesn’t address the key challenges of AgriStability,” he said, referring to the unpredictable outcomes and long timelines that farmers associate with the program.

Pedersen also voiced concern about a comment he says Minister Bibeau made at the end of the meeting on Friday regarding business risk management programs under the next federal-provincial agreement.

“The federal government expressed the federal government’s opinion that changes are needed in the new agreement to lessen support for AgriInvest and AgriInsurance because, and I’ll quote her, ‘payments are going to rich farms only.’ This is a concern,” said Pedersen. “The federal government seems to have implied they’ll put some money out now but they’ll claw back money later, and that’s our big concern in this.”

In response, a spokesperson for Minister Bibeau said they were not sure which comment Pedersen was referring to.

“Minister Bibeau has demonstrated that she’s ready to invest in BRM, not make cuts. She has put a concrete offer on the table for the provinces to consider,” Bibeau’s spokesperson said, in a statement shared with RealAgriculture following Pedersen’s comments. “Formal consultations on the direction of the next policy framework have not even started yet, and it is far too early to imply anything otherwise.”

Whether or not discussions regarding the next round of BRM programs have reached that formal consultation stage, the idea of a margin-based insurance program to replace AgriStability is “gaining some traction,” according to Pedersen.

“It would be an insurance premium on income, very generally,” he explained, noting the challenge is to find a single program that works for diverse farm operations — from blueberry farmer in New Brunswick to the cow-calf operater in Manitoba’s Interlake to a canola grower in Saskatchewan . “Is this something that will provide bankability, timeliness, and yet be affordable for both producers and government?”

He said the ministers have tasked officials with developing a report on the margin-based insurance concept to be presented at the next annual ministers’ meeting, slated to be held in Guelph, Ont., in July 2021.

“Farm groups, commodity groups are willing to look at alternatives,” noted Pedersen. “They are not saying it’s AgriStability or nothing, because everybody realizes the shortfalls of AgriStability. Maybe that’s where we’ll end up anyway, but let’s look at alternatives — and now we have a formal proposal to actually flesh out the numbers for the ministers and the FPT…”

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