The sister peers out from behind the front door at the Monastery of the Virgin Mary the Consolatory, expecting another religious pilgrim.
If you’re interested in Orthodox Byzantine traditions you will be welcomed warmly. But ask about the nuns’ dairy business and you will be turned away.
Global News travelled to this isolated convent as part of a wider investigation into Canada’s dairy industry. We wanted to ask about the sisters’ public clash with Les Producteurs de lait du Québec (LPQ), the group representing Quebec dairy producers, when the sisters were handed a $75,000 fine for producing milk without a proper licence.
Even three years on, it’s a sensitive topic. While the kind but nervous nun invited me to take shelter from the storm, she also conveyed orders from above not to speak about the ordeal, in case they “get in trouble.”
This fear of reprisal became a central refrain in our months-long investigation, prompted by two unprecedented hikes to the price of milk this year. In six months, milk in many provinces has increased in price by about 20 per cent.
As inflation soars, dairy farmers say price increases are necessary to cover ballooning costs.
But industry advocates argue that no other industry is able to pass on its cost increases directly on to the consumer. Canada’s controversial supply-management system protects dairy, poultry and egg farmers from international competition by regulating supply and imposing massive border tariffs on imports.
Supply management also forces farmers to pay millions in marketing costs to provincial milk boards. This week, a portion of that money found its way to the upper right-hand corner of the Maple Leaf’s jerseys as the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) became the NHL team’s first sweater branding partner. DFO refuse to say how much the deal cost.
Amid all this controversy, however, we have seldom heard from the people at the centre of it all: the farmers.
So, we sought to change that, by journeying into rural Quebec — the heart of Canada’s dairy industry.
Home to about half of the country’s dairy farms (4,675 of 9,952), the province boasts two of the country’s biggest processors – Agropur and Saputo – and is the dominant force shaping Canada’s milk policy.
But it’s not the agricultural land of milk and honey we expected to find. Instead, it seems, almost nobody is entirely happy with the way supply management is functioning.
Farmers say they are still struggling. Restaurants say price increases are pushing them to closure. Critics say supermarket prices are artificially inflated without international competition. Politicians, leery of offending voters, don’t say much at all.
This apprehension to talk openly has become a hallmark of Canada’s dairy industry. One industry stakeholder had manure dumped on her lawn after speaking out against supply management. Academics and experts declined to speak on the record because they’d been bullied for it in the past.
But amid the rise of plant-based milk and as the Canadian Food Guide drops dairy from its once lofty perch as a recommended food group, why does Canada’s dairy lobby continue to wield so much power? In what other occupation do members get to dole out fines and write their own salary cheques?
And why, amid simmering internal discontent, does the dairy industry continue to be Canada’s sacred cow?
The silent nuns
For two decades, Virgin Mary the Consolatory nuns produced and sold sheep’s and goat’s cheese in grocery stores around Quebec without an issue, under their Le Troupeau Benit label.
But in 2019, LPQ accused the nuns of selling cow’s milk products without a licence – known in Canada as “quota.” A quota is, in as close to layman’s terms as we can manage, the amount of “butterfat” a farm is allowed to produce, which is transformed into milk, butter and other dairy products. Quota is measured in kilograms, but one kilogram is roughly equivalent to owning one cow.
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The nuns denied these claims, saying they milked two Guernsey cows for personal consumption, which doesn’t require a quota. They publicly complained about the fine, but after that, the nuns went silent.
Apparently, there’s a reason for that.
After weeks of dodged calls and emails, a visit to the monastery and another week of evading contact, LPQ confirmed that the two parties had reached an out-of-court settlement.
An eventual reply from the monastery’s administrator, Sister Macrina, cited confidentiality clauses as the reason they wouldn’t speak to us.
“We have decided to put that issue behind us and to focus our attention on other issues, especially prayer and our spiritual peace, the main reason we dedicated our life for,” Sister Macrina said.
Farmers say riches are only on paper
In the tiny village of Saint-Francoise, full of wooden bungalows, grain silos and lush paddocks about 90 kilometres east of Quebec City, Mario Lyonnais is tending to his 35-cow farm on a drizzly Thursday afternoon. It’s a modest operation dominated by a barn in need of a paint job, two tractors and children’s toys littered across the yard.
Lyonnais is a second-generation dairy farmer — he has also been Saint Francoise’s mayor for 25 years. Agriculture is crucial to the village — there are 11 farms (two crop, nine dairy) among a population of 500.
Like most of the farmers we speak to, Lyonnais agrees he’s wealthy — but not in the way people think. His money is tied up in assets and overheads, he explains.
He wears an old pair of dirty overalls, ripped in places, and gumboots while wrangling a twin grandchild under each arm as he explains his farm is just “breaking even.” As modern farms attempt to improve efficiency with milking robots elsewhere, there’s not a mechanical arm in sight here. His home is an old wooden bungalow.
But, like most others, Lyonnais’s fortune lies in his quota.
In Quebec and Ontario, one kilo of quota costs $24,000, and is capped, but in Alberta, it soared to $58,000 in March.
That means a 35-cow farm, such as Lyonnais’ is worth about $840,000 in quota alone.
“Yes I’m rich … on paper,” Lyonnais says. “But I’m not going to just sell my family’s farm.”
Lyonnais says February’s record farmgate milk price increase (the amount farmers are paid for their milk) of 8.4 per cent was not enough to cover costs. He says dairy farming was “already tough and now it’s worse.”
He’s concerned about the impact of a 35 per cent tax on goods from Russia — he buys Russian fertilizer and seeds. While he is not in debt, he’s concerned about the impact rising interest rates will have on younger peers — many of whom had to take out loans to buy quota, which was handed out in the 1970s for free.
To survive, this small community bands together. They have a Facebook group. On a Friday night, they sit around his back porch and drink rum. A call comes in from a young dairy farmer asking for an equipment part. Lyonnais says he’ll bring it over later.
“There’s a psychologist in the town, and they have too many people to see. Suicides and divorces are a worry,” Lyonnais says.
It’s why farmers keep exiting the industry, he says. He hands over a flyer announcing the sale of a nearby farm, shaking his head.
Farms continue to close across Canada
That flyer is for the sale of Marc Duval’s 80-cow farm in Nicolet, Que., about 70 kilometres away.
Duval’s farm is one of hundreds across Canada that will close this year – the continuation of a trend that has seen 30 per cent of dairy farms in Canada disappear in just 15 years. That’s despite one of the central pillars of supply management being to keep family farms in business.
Duval tells Global News he’s selling the farm, which he took over from his father because it has become a “financial burden.”
The price he’s paid for milk isn’t enough, he says, so he’s going to try growing crops instead.
It’s hard to feel too sympathetic for Duval. With a 70-kilo milking quota, he’ll make $1.7 million in the sale of that alone.
But his concerns about day-to-day earnings aren’t unfounded either; financial distress is one of the leading factors of mental illness in farming communities.}
As part of her 2021 PhD thesis, Université du Québec student Ginette Lafleur studied 93 farmer suicide files between 1998 and 2013 in Quebec. She found that 40 per cent were dairy farmers.
Prior to Lafleur’s work, the only available study on rates of suicide among farmers in Quebec was carried out more than 20 years ago, and indicated that it was double that of men in the general public.
The deaths were most commonly related to financial loss and heavy workloads, Lafleur tells Global News, issues that were exacerbated by a lack of social support and a “non-recognition of their work by society.”
Farmers were also less likely to seek help due to a “fear of being perceived as weak and of not being understood by professional services outside of agriculture.”
So, Quebec set up a network of farm social workers (travailleurs de rang) to improve the accessibility of psychosocial support services by working directly with farmers.
But is it enough?
‘Why do I work so much for this?’
In Saint-Barnabe-Sud, near Montreal, fourth-generation farmer Jean-Sebastien Savaria says one of the hardest aspects of being a farmer is the negative perception from the public.
“We’re always getting complaints, and that’s very difficult on our emotions.”
Now, he operates an “open farm” day each September to allow curious townspeople to look around his operation.
Savaria’s 40-cow farm is the epitome of the small family farm that supply management is trying to protect. His parents still live in the property’s 100-year-old farmhouse. His sister lives next door. Savaria and his family live in his grandfather’s old house.
Savaria grew up watching the toll the career took on his father and his “low good quality life, working too much for no money.”
He wanted to become a lawyer instead, but the family calling became too hard to ignore. He wears a Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) branded hoodie and pats his cows lovingly on the ears as he speaks.
“I love it. When you do good you get the payback. But when it’s bad, it’s bad.”
Like others, Savaria has had to diversify his farm to make money. He grows crops – corn and soy mostly – which make up about a quarter of his revenue. A decade ago, it was half that.
“Why do I work so much for this? Every year it gets less and less,” he says.
Other things get him down too, like milk dumping. Farmers are forced to dispose of milk if consumption patterns change or things go awry. Over Canada Day weekend, two million litres were dumped due to a workers’ strike at Agropur’s Granby plant. At $5.39 per 4-litre bag, that’s roughly $2.7-million worth of milk.
Savaria too says he is a rich man – on paper. He says his salary is $2,000 per month and everything else is reinvested.
In fact, the only farmer we spoke to who says he’s not rich, is the one who appears the richest.
Visitors to Drapeau Farm in Saint-Francoise are greeted in a modern administration building the size of a house. There are laser-cut signs bearing the farm’s name and polished wooden floors. Robots take on much of the workload in the barn. It is a stark contrast to Mario Lyonnais’ basic farm less than 10 kilometres down the road
Owner Dominic Drapeau wears a Drapeau Farm-branded sweatshirt as he recalls his upbringing on an 80-cow farm, which he’s grown to 800. Drapeau reinvests his profits in quota, expanding at a rate of 30 to 40 cows per year.
With the current price of quota, that value alone is $1.9 million.
“We have a comfortable life, and we don’t miss out on anything, but we all work very hard,” he says.
He says he’s not struggling right now, but costs are higher, and he should be compensated fairly with increased milk prices. He says he could make more money without supply management, as his farm is bigger and more efficient, but he doesn’t want to lose it.
“The rules are the same for everyone,” he says. “We are taking care of everyone.”
But critics say those rules, and the organization that imposes them, are part of the problem.
Cost of milk production gets cheaper
The Crown-controlled Canadian Dairy Commission (CDC) sets the price of milk every six months, using a formula split into two parts: one half considers the cost of milk production, using a randomized and anonymous survey of roughly 200 farms, and the other considers inflation.
But there’s a time lag of two years to this equation. For instance, the cost of production data from 2021 dictates 2023 prices.
CDC stakeholders can ask for the formula to be set aside, citing “exceptional circumstances” if certain criteria are met, including unanticipated events and rising costs. The Dairy Farmers of Canada used this mechanism for both pricing decisions this year — a record-breaking 8.4 per cent increase in February and a rare mid-year hike.
This formula has been set aside four times since 2017, when it was implemented, due to rising costs. But the specific proof of these costs is never provided. The CDC has long refused to share its farm survey data.
Global News requested CDC records from the February price hike through access-to-information legislation. The information we received was heavily redacted, with all of the specific farm data missing.
The data that was included showed animal feed accounted for 58 per cent of the 2022 cost of production increase, with 25 per cent due to the increase in the minimum wage.
More recently, leaked documents shared with Global News show the cost of producing milk is actually getting cheaper. In a CDC PowerPoint presentation from July, the 2021 standardized cost of production for milk — used to set 2023 prices — decreased from $85.42 per hectolitre to $84.57 per hectolitre. That should mean that milk gets cheaper next year – but inflation might bring prices up again.
The CDC has also not cut back on its own costs.
According to its annual report, the commission received $4.7 million from taxpayers in 2020-21, up from $3.9 million in 2019-20. The increase was “to fund increased salary expenses.”
Part of that was to fund bonuses and pay raises during the pandemic. In 2020, 57 CDC employees got pay rises (79 per cent of all employees), according to data from the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, at a cost of $143,202. In 2021, 48 employees got a raise.
The CDC’s labour costs are up 35 per cent in five years.
While the CDC initially refused to release data on bonuses, it later admitted that five employees were awarded bonuses in 2020 — $16,764 each. In 2021, five employees were given $17,470.
This lack of transparency has landed the commission in hot water with many of its stakeholders, including Restaurants Canada and the Retail Council of Canada.
Even the Dairy Processors of Canada (DPAC) this year departed from its traditionally tight-lipped approach, telling Global News that it too has been asking the CDC for better communication.
Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau has even entered the fray to call for more transparency.
Chantal Paul, CDC spokesperson, said it was already adapting its communications, by including a FAQ section on its website and follow-up sessions with stakeholders.
The CDC has no control over the pricing mechanism itself as it was put in place by industry consensus, Paul says.
Restaurants Canada vice-president Olivier Bourbeau, however, says the commission itself needs to change. He says other supply-managed industries work in ”collaboration, instead of confrontation,” unlike dairy.