The Saskatchewan Election:

A 2020 Perspective e-book

Role of Agriculture in the Saskatchewan General Election 2020

By Dr. MERLE MASSIE, Co-ordinator, Undergraduate Research Initiative, University of Saskatchewan
@merlemassie | 

Dr. KAREN CHURCHILL, President and Chief Executive Officer, Ag-West Bio 

Saskatchewan is home to more than 40 per cent of Canada’s cultivated agricultural farmland and is the second largest cattle-producing province in Canada. The province is the largest exporter of agri-food products in Canada, with exports worth over $12B in 2019. Along with value-added agri-food processing, agricultural research and development, equipment manufacturing, and related supportive industries such as policy, agronomy, market development, irrigation, the grain trade, crop nutrition and crop protection, agriculture writ large is one of Saskatchewan’s largest businesses.[1] About 50,000 people are directly employed in Saskatchewan’s agriculture community, with others employed in secondary or tertiary businesses serving agriculture.[2] Provincial governments recognize the central place of agriculture in the provincial economy and have a role in producing and directing policy and incentives to help this sector thrive and grow. Agriculture is not just the view from the farm gate; it is embedded across Saskatchewan, urban and rural.

Despite its importance, agriculture played little role in the debates or media specifically related to the 2020 Saskatchewan general election. Prior to the election call, there were two significant agricultural policy announcements of 2020. The first was the $4B irrigation expansion project near Outlook, to use water from Lake Diefenbaker.[3] The second was the $15M leverage investment from Innovation Saskatchewan for venture capital support to develop new technology in agriculture. This investment was complemented by startup incentives and the AgTech Growth fund.[4] Both of these initiatives showcase a strong connection between the Sask Party and the agricultural sector. 

The Saskatchewan Party 2019 Growing Saskatchewan plan, which was included in the party election platform, outlined 20 actions for 2020—eight of the actions directly or indirectly related to agriculture.[5] Of the specific 2020 election promises, reducing all SaskPower customer bills by 10 per cent for one year would provide significant savings for farms and agriculture-related businesses.[6]

The only other contender party, the Saskatchewan New Democrats, had a few party platform promises specific to agriculture: Rural Reconnect for rural and remote broadband access; lower crop insurance rates for new farmers; and lower SGI rates (which would make a difference at the farm gate, where farms often own multiple vehicles).[7]

However, election rhetoric, debate, and conversation, for the most part, did not engage in agricultural issues. As a result, two provincial agricultural entities—the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association—organized “Growing Agriculture: 2020 Saskatchewan Provincial Election Forum.”

This online forum, with panelists and a moderator, invited all Saskatchewan-registered political parties to participate. Three attended: candidates David Marit (Sask Party), who was the Minister of Agriculture before dissolution of the legislature; Yens Pedersen (NDP), who was the opposition Agriculture critic; and Robert Rudachyk, leader (Liberal Party). The forum was aired on Access Communications, RealAgriculture, and uploaded to YouTube for wider distribution.[8]

The parties were asked for their views and policies on a number of agricultural issues, including rural Internet and cell connectivity, intergenerational transfer of business, business risk management (BRM) policies, agricultural drainage, carbon offset policies, and agricultural research. Questions were submitted by farmers, and the three political parties were invited to comment. Then, each panelist—agricultural producers Todd Lewis (APAS president), Myles Thorpe (SaskFSA president), and Ian Boxall (APAS vice-president)—responded and discussed the policy proposals.

Of the three, Liberal leader Rudachyk showcased the least understanding of agricultural issues, retreating to tropes such as dismissing corporate farms as not really farms. Pedersen and Marit offered more clear policy discussion, with Marit showcasing the Sask Party’s past record and close connection to the agricultural community, and Pedersen showcasing future potential policies, while reiterating leader Ryan Meili’s farm roots.

While the forum tried to insert more agricultural discussion into the larger election debate, its viewership was largely the agricultural community.

Why were agricultural issues not significant during the election campaign? In part, the forum responses given by Marit and Pedersen showcase the divide. Marit was able to reinforce Sask Party connections to and record of achievement in agriculture. Given agriculture’s position of growth and relative stability in the last number of years, there were few points of contention, disapproval, or wedge issues where Pedersen could intervene.

Likewise, few of the issues Pedersen brought forward, including Rural Reconnect, were novel ideas. For the most part, the NDP-proposed policies were adjustments or changes to the existing system—hardly enough to win an electorate. The NDP was also consistently hampered by its own record of rural hospital and school closures of the 1990s era—a point repeatedly brought up by the Sask Party with good effect. The Sask Party was also able to capitalize on rural disdain for the federal carbon tax, a policy which disproportionally affects farm costs.

The election win by the Sask Party—its fourth majority mandate—is built largely on the back of what is often considered the rural-urban divide. However, it’s important to recognize that in Saskatchewan, agriculture is much more than a rural business. Those connected to agriculture (rural and urban) were happy to continue supporting the Sask Party and its agricultural success, rather than vote for the NDP.

Issues within the agricultural community find a larger space within political debate during an election only if negative or divisive issues happen to coincide with an election period. If the farm community is not in crisis, agricultural issues do not hit the radar.

During Saskatchewan election 2020, agricultural issues did not play a key role. The Sask Party capitalized on a comparatively good record of growth and stability and handily took the majority of the agricultural vote. Even when the agricultural community itself tried to insert agricultural issues into the larger election conversation, the initiative did not have a major impact. In the end, agriculture voted for the party that has supported its success.