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Standing up for farmers and standing against the Pallister cuts to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation

This afternoon in the Manitoba Legislature, I stood up to talk on behalf of farmers in Manitoba and against the planned Pallister cuts to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation.  My remarks are below:

Jon Gerrard: MLA-River Heights:I stand today on this Grievance on behalf of the farmers of Manitoba.   The provincial government is looking to cut staff positions and salary costs at the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, also known as MASC.  The government should not do this, and there are multiple reasons why the government should not do this.

First there is an urgent need for the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation at this moment.   Last year was a very tough year for many farmers. I understand there is a back log of more than 500 outstanding post-harvest claims that need urgent attention. There is urgency in resolving these claims as many farmers are out seeding now.  It can’t wait.

Add to this, there are additional claims from this year where farmers were not able to harvest last fall and have harvested the remainder of their crop this spring   A considerable proportion of those crops will need to be assessed.  And farmers in spring can’t tolerate wait times.  They need to get their crop in.  If MASC is not working well and quickly when farmers need their help it is a big problem.  We do not need and do not want the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation to be e-MASC-ulated.  

Add to this, today farmers are seeding and very soon the crops will be growing.  We hope there are not major problems with hail this year, but if there are, MASC will be needed, and there can be a big demand on MASC services if it is a bad hail year.  This is NOT the time to cutback on MASC services!

Second, MASC has an outstanding record of performance and achievement and service to farmers. I have talked to many farmers and it is rare to find a farmer who is not thankful for what used to be Crop Insurance and is now a MASC agri-insurance program. Indeed, I have been told by one long-time farmer that the MASC programs are the most important programs for farmers.   In a tribute to MASC – one farmer -told me -talking to me on his cell phone as he was seeding – that he has not met even one farmer who has hesitated to put in a crop this year – even with all the uncertainty about the COVID-19 situation.  Farmers are not hesitating because they know MASC is there for them.  That is one of the biggest tributes I can say in support of MASC.  MASC has essentially been the insurer – the securer of our home grown food supply – and the food supply from Manitoba which is exported around the world and which is so important to people all over the world.   I say to the Premier – Do not let Manitoba farmers down by cutting back on MASC.   It is working well.   Farmers tell me they do not see any frills in MASC.  They are already a lean operation.  In my experience if you have a program with a really good track record and which is running well, don’t mess with it and cause problems which we don’t need.  Programs like MASC are an example of how a helpful government program can be run.

Third MASC is a lean program and is constantly improving its programs and services and using more digital delivery of services.  It does not make sense to arbitrarily cut a lean and efficiently run service.  A number of years ago, there was a technology switch at MASC so that adjusters were working with lap top computers and MASC did cut back on the number of employees who were keying in data because they were not needed as much any more.  There was a business case then for cutbacks and they were done.   THERE IS NO BUSINESS CASE FOR CUTBACKS TO MASC NOW.

Fourth, MASC is currently in the middle of a technology transformation.  It is a massive job.   The government should not be cutting back staff at MASC in the middle of this transformation.  It involves a lot of extra training.  It involves major adjustments to the work and this is not a time to be cutting people when the people are badly needed by and for the organization.

Fifth, most MASC programs are run with a combination of federal and provincial dollars. It is important that Manitoba is able to deliver programs like Agri-stability and Agri-insurance well on behalf of both governments.  I say to the Premier please do not put us in a position where farmers have trouble accessing federal as well as provincial programs.

Sixth, we are in the middle of a pandemic.  Now is not the time to be cutting staff and destabilizing people’s lives. Indeed MASC is needed at full strength right now, - - not just to deal with the backlog, - not just to deal with the technology transformation - but specifically because there is added need for flexibility in the response to the pandemic.  People at MASC have adjusted with more people working from home though adjusting and lending staff are still going out to meet farmers while following full physical distancing guidelines.  The cabinet may want to run a new program through MASC to help farmers manage the difficult situation – for example with falling beef prices.   Flexibility and rapidity of response are critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. You do not want to cut the very people who are so critical in helping with the pandemic response.  I say to the Premier – “Do not cut the people who are so essential to farmers producing our food supply during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Madame Speaker, I talked to one farmer who had this to say.  He said he had heard that the Premier was calling for MASC to make cutbacks.   He said “I would be hard pressed to see where the Premier’s coming from”  He added: “I am not sure what message the Premier and his government are sending by making cutbacks to MASC – but I, as a farmer, don’t like the message.”

Madame Speaker, I speak today on this critical matter – the future of MASC and the critical need for MASC, the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, to be fully staffed and fully operation at this most critical of years for all of us.  I ask the Premier – does he really want to be know from now on – by farmer, and by Manitobans – as the Chief E-MASC-ulator.

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