Bush re-election may expedite border opening

Now that the presidential and congressional elections south of the border are behind us, some local cattle farmers are looking anxiously towards the future in the hopes that the nightmare that has been hanging over their heads for the last 18 months may finally dissolve in the sunlight of a new morning.
Since the discovery of a single cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Alberta in May, 2003, cattle farmers across the country have found the doors to markets in the United States firmly locked and bolted against live cattle from Canada, and the toll on farmers is proving to be significant.
This is every bit as true here in the Rainy River District as it is in more traditional cattle ranching areas, such as Alberta, says Peter Spuzak, president of the Rainy River Cattlemen’s Association.
But with the re-election of George W. Bush to the White House, there is, at long last, a chance things could turn around as soon as the new year.
A chance.
“Everybody seems to think Bush would be a better president for that to happen,” said Spuzak last Thursday, noting that defeated presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts had campaigned strongly against opening the border.
“The fact that (Sen. Tom) Daschle is out is important too,” he added.
Sen. Daschle, an outspoken advocate for keeping the border closed to Canadian cattle, lost his seat in the congressional elections to a Republican opponent.
But for many, the damage has already been done, says Spuzak, and some district farmers may never recover.
“We need a miracle now,” he stressed. “It’s gotten worse and worse. You can’t send cattle anywhere.”
Suzak said some farmers are still holding onto cull cattle from last winter because the prices being paid for them do not cover the shipping costs to send them to slaughter. As a consequence, costs and debt are adding up to the point where some farmers have resorted to drastic measures.
“I shot three cows last winter,” Spuzak admitted, noting other farmers in the district have done likewise. Furthermore, he foresees more of the same this winter if the border doesn’t open soon.
“I think there are a lot of farmers who want to get out of the business,” he remarked.
But Spuzak doesn’t see the presence of a trade-friendly president as the panacea to the cattle glut here. Nor does he believe a single infected cow is solely responsible for the current impasse with the Americans.
In fact, Spuzak is convinced there are at least as many infected cows in the U.S. that were never reported and never will be, as well as others here. Cattle ranchers on both sides of the border, he suspects, are probably following the musings of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein and taking the “three-S” approach – shoot, shovel, and shut up.
With the safeguards currently in place to ensure sick cattle never make it into the feed chain, Spuzak feels the health threat posed by BSE is vastly overblown anyway.
“BSE is right down at the bottom of the health risk,” Spuzak claimed.
So, what is the problem, then?
“It’s all politics,” Spuzak explained.
And the politics goes far beyond trade issues. Spuzak believes it extends to a perception of anti-Americanism in the federal government that precedes the BSE incident. He blames former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s lack of support for the U.S. campaign in Iraq and his failure to censure certain government officials for derogatory statements regarding U.S. foreign policy for poisoning relations between the two neighbours.
“If he (Chrétien) had kept his mouth shut, we would have been better off,” he charged.
In the meantime, cattle farmers have not helped matters any by working together for the common good. Spuzak said competition for scarce government compensation among the various factions within the industry and a tendency to seek maximum profit margins when dealing with each other has aggravated an already difficult situation.
“Right off the bat, the cattle people fight amongst themselves,” he stressed. “It’s been that way for a long time.”
There are three different areas in the cattle industry—cow/calf operators, backgrounders, and feedlot operators. Cow/calf operators like Spuzak usually sell their stock to backgrounders, who put the animals on pasture for a few months before selling them to feedlot operators, who then bring them up to market weight.
In some cases where the calves are already of good size, they are sold directly to the feedlot operator for finishing, but ultimately, they must be shipped for slaughter at the owner’s expense.
Under current market conditions, that expense can sometimes exceed the price paid and the farmer takes the loss.
Because of that, says Spuzak, farmers are already getting out of the business and unless the border opens soon, that trend will continue.
“I think there are a lot of farmers who want to get out of the business,” he observed. “There are a number of farms for sale in the district.”
Spuzak also dismisses the idea that farmers in the Rainy River District are better able to cope with the current conditions than their colleagues in places like Alberta because most of them here have a source of off-farm income.
“I’ve been out there and seen some of those ranches,” he remarked. “The ones that look good have oil leases on them,” he added.
Spuzak said if things are going to change, it will probably happen in the new year after the inauguration in Washington.