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Quebec farmers have been protesting since December. Is anyone listening?

Quebec farmers are protesting production costs that have doubled or tripled, as well as high interest rates that make covering expenses even harder. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe) Quebec farmers are protesting production costs that have doubled or tripled, as well as high interest rates that make covering expenses even harder. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe)
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On Monday morning in Sherbrooke, Que., dozens of tractors slowly rolled along a stretch of road between the regional offices of Quebec's farmers' association and the Agriculture Department a few hundred meters away. 

Upset about high interest rates, growing paperwork and heavy regulatory burdens, protesting farmers have become a familiar sight across Quebec since December.

"It's pretty hard to get farmers out of their farms, because they've got so many hours to put in, but to see them going out, it means that there is really something going bad in farming right now," said Benjamin Boivin, a corn and wheat farmer in Quebec's Estrie region, east of Montreal, who was out protesting on Monday.

Government aid programs no longer match the needs of the province's farmers — only one per cent of Quebec's provincial budget goes to agriculture, and most of that money funds a tax credit to help farmers pay municipal taxes, he said.

Martin Caron, president of the official body that speaks for Quebec farmers, the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA), said the net income of farms dropped by an average of 50 per cent last year, largely due to rising interest rates and the high cost of fuel and equipment.

Burdened with diminishing profits, farmers are also being forced to comply with an increasing amount of paperwork.

Forms required to expand farmland can be 100 pages long, he said, and it can take months to get new buildings approved.

That's in addition to the training farmers must take to learn about specific crops.

"When you've got bureaucrats coming to your place to tell you how to do your job, which you studied, it doesn't work anymore for the producers," Caron said.

Since 2015, farmers have paid the government more than $400 million in environmental fees, which are charged on a range of plastic products, such as containers of seeds, fertilizer and pesticides.

Caron said he wants that money returned to farmers to help them adapt to climate change.

Those fees, which don't exist elsewhere in Canada or internationally, have put Quebec farmers at a commercial disadvantage, he said. 

Farmers, Caron said, want the government to cap interest rates for them at three per cent.

While the province has created an emergency financing program, he said it consists of more loans at unaffordable rates for already indebted farmers.

Pascal Thériault, director of McGill University's farm management and technology program, said when interest rates were low, farmers were incentivized to invest in their farms.

The rising interest rates have contributed to declining profits, he added.

Farmers at the protest on Monday said government programs remain focused on encouraging expansion and new investment rather than supporting existing operations. 

Due to the seasonal nature of farming, farmers often have to borrow money, Thériault explained.

"In the spring, you don't have revenues yet, so you need to borrow, borrow to get your seed, to get your fertilizer, to get everything," he said. "You need lots of dollars of assets to generate a lot of revenue, and you need to borrow money to be able to afford those assets. So whenever you have an increase in the interest rate, of course, you're hit pretty hard."

The high amount of paperwork is partially a symptom of Quebec's farm support programs: the government helps farmers financially and wants accountability in return, he said.

For example, an agrologist — a soil specialist — must sign off on some paperwork, and farmers can get a subsidy to hire one, which requires its own administrative load.

"So they need to fill out paperwork so they can get someone to help them fill out paperwork," he said. 

The Quebec government says it's listening.

"We're talking about a perfect storm here. We understand why our producers are concerned," Sophie J. Barma, a spokesperson for André Lamontagne, Quebec's agriculture minister, said in an emailed statement.

Farmers facing difficulties can apply to an emergency financing program created last year, she said, adding that the government is working with the UPA and other groups to reduce the regulatory and administrative burden. 

Caron says he needs to see results.

"People are waiting for action, because it's been too long that they've been telling us 'we understand, we'll set up committees,'" he said,

"People are determined to be respected." 

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2024. 

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