Open Letter: Community Pastures Program

Hello MP’s of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Medicine Hat,

There is a unique situation that has developed that involves a group of government employees and their families. I will use the term PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) for clarity purposes, although the name has changed to AESB (Agri-Environment Services Branch).

As some of you may or may not be aware, there are PFRA Community Pastures in most of your districts. These pastures encompass over 2 million acres in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Suffield area of Alberta. There are over 200,000 cattle grazed, and about 3,100 patrons who pay for these cattle to graze these pastures. However, the 2012 budget has declared an end to the community pasture program. This will take up to six years, but, in reality, we are hearing it will be closer to three years.

There are so many problems with losing this program, I hardly know where to begin. The aspect that is unique to PFRA, however, needs to be addressed immediately. There are 87 pastures in total, with about 80 pasture managers. About 90 per cent of these managers live on PFRA pasture land in housing supplied, and pay rent to be there. In most cases, this is a requirement of the job.

The managers have found out they will be unemployed in the near future, as the budget dictated. They have been told five pastures in Manitoba and five in Saskatchewan will close after this year’s grazing season is complete. At the moment, all 80 managers are wondering if they will not only be out of work, but homeless by this fall.

Is it not possible to confirm which pastures will close now? Hopefully some thought was put into this, and they won’t be drawn out of a hat. There must be an idea at some level of government on what the plan is. Could this be shared? Maybe let five employees know what is happening right away, and the remainder have an idea that they may have another year to plan for the rest of their careers.

Most of these employees have been planning for their future retirement, but did not expect it to come like a ton of bricks. They have families that are integrated into communities they love, where they work, play, go to church, school, and are active community members. It won’t be easy to find housing and a career without uprooting their entire family. Do you think if they go to their bank to request a mortgage of $300,000+ and say “I’m laid off right away, but I need the money to put a roof over my families heads,” that they will qualify for a mortgage? Not likely.

We have heard the pastures will be turned over to the provinces. How will that work? Will there be a requirement to continue grazing these pastures? Will there be an offer of employment for these people? Are they to wait until that time, and rely on the benevolence of the provinces to supply work for them? Or do the provinces and federal governments realize the skill set they are losing by their actions?

It is very difficult to find an employee who is available to work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Not to mention, enjoys their job, is very good at it, and commits their lives to it. If there is a lame bull on Christmas day, it’s dealt with right away, and probably with the help of the spouse and kids. It’s like owning your own livestock operation, but now being told to pack it up and get out, with only the shirt on your back. You will all look long and hard to find the dedication shown by these employees to their way of life.

The community pastures are a mix of crown, provincial and municipal land. Will the pasture managers get a crack at purchasing their homes, that they are required to live in, and that they have paid rent on in lieu of a mortgage payment for all these years?

The community pasture program is a revenue neutral program. There are reports that show the benefits to Canadians by these pastures are in the millions of dollars.  Why is it so important to cut the program, to loose these benefits?

There are so many cattle producers who rely on the pastures for critical grazing. Cattle producers in this country have weathered BSE, Anthrax, Anaplasmosis, closed borders, floods and droughts all in the last 10 years. This is not a list of hardships over the last century, it’s 10 years. Now they are told their summer grazing will disappear. They will be expected to sell their livelihood, or go purchase property to replace the grazing they have been utilizing, relying on and paying for, for years.

The PFRA employees that manage pastures are a unique group of government workers that provide a very unique service. Their situation is critical, like so many other employees, and with added stresses such as housing and lack of opportunity in rural areas.

These employees deserve answers to their questions, and sooner rather than later. Find some answers for your constituents and share them with those most affected in a truly transparent and timely way. There are families at stake.

I look forward to your prompt reply.

Barb Kristjansson
Livestock Producer and friend to many PFRA employees,
Alternate RVP, Agriculture Union