REGINA — Recent comments made by Saskatchewan's finance minister have inflamed farmers who say the government is creating an urban-rural divide that is harmful.
On Monday, Donna Harpauer presented her mid-year financial report showing a record $2.7-billion deficit, which she largely attributed to crop insurance claims brought on by severe drought.
More than $2.4 billion of crop insurance was paid out, the most in Saskatchewan's history, and $1.8 billion of that had not been budgeted for, which largely contributed to the deficit.
When presenting her report, Harpauer said "without the agriculture support (expense), we'd almost be balanced."
Ian Boxall, vice-president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said Harpauer's comments are misleading and farmers should not be blamed for the province's accounting decisions.
"The government is throwing producers under the bus," Boxall said Wednesday.
"When urban people hear there's $2 billion payout to farmers through crop insurance, that's probably worrisome. What they need to understand is we pay the premiums in, and the money is actually there."
Boxall said he wants to make it clear the money wasn't a bailout from the government. For years, producers, along with the federal and provincial governments, have been paying into the crop insurance fund to ensure money is there when it's needed.
"We paid in, and this year we have to pay out," Boxall said.
Boxall's group addressed its concerns in a letter to the government. Harpauer called it a disingenuous letter which dismayed her and she accused the group of being misinformed.
"It's an attack on our government," Harpauer said in a followup interview.
She co-penned a letter with Agriculture Minister David Marit to respond to the concerns. They accused the producers' group of having a limited understanding of accounting principles and asked that the letter be retracted.
Asked if farmers should bite their tongues, she said: "Before they speak to us, and get an understanding, and not give out false information, yes."
Boxall said producers have worked for years to eliminate the division between rural and urban residents and try to get people living in cities to understand the issues farmers face.
"I don't want to have a bigger divide between rural and urban. We're a small province, based on population, and we need to have similar goals and outlook of what's good for the province," Boxall said.
He said the letter was an attempt to educate the government on that point.
"That's their concern," Harpauer retorted. "We all — urban and rural — is well aware there was a ... catastrophic, challenging year in agriculture this year. I'm not sure what their issue is."
Premier Scott Moe weighed in on Thursday. He said the letters from the producers and Harpauer "were both factual."
He said the letters could have been avoided if Boxall's group had just picked up the phone.
"If you have questions, make a phone call, and we can have a phone call about how public sector accounting works here," Moe said before reiterating similar comments made by Harpauer.
"If we could disregard ... the support required to pay out to producers because of the program we have in place, Saskatchewan would be very close to having a very balanced budget this year, and I think that's a positive thing."
Todd Lewis, president of the producers' group, followed up Thursday with a second letter to the finance minister.
He wrote that farmers do not want to be blamed for the deficit.
"Having these discussions without being accused of being deceitful, ignorant, or misinformed would be appreciated."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021.
Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press