The World's a Stage

Written by Ian Cummings

Lawyers are actors. At least the good ones are. They're so entertaining that, when about 45 of 50 Quebec farmers had no clue what was said in the English only two-day Chobani yogurt trial, they stayed riveted to their seats to watch. In a sense these farmers being bused into Montreal are required to be actors as well. Nearly all are wearing suit coats and ties, and are being asked to pretend to understand.

The payoff is a fancy hotel room for the night, transportation here, a decent per diem amount, all for the sake of protecting that $6 a hectolitre dividend they get from AgroPur. It works out to the equivalent of an extra milk cheque every year and this Chobani Ontario plant has to be gutted in the planning phase to maintain AgroPur profits, they say. The dividend cheque keeps coming for seven years after they quit milking. They were shocked there were long-time Quebec shippers with AgroPur shares living and milking in Ontario.

These Quebec producers passionately told me their coached talking points in feigned outrage over lunch, down the street from the courthouse. But they do allow that "if Chobani bought Quebec milk, we'd let it be built."

I told them to cut the acting crap, they could save that for other reporters. I was a dairy farmer too, and what they were doing was gutless protectionism to cover their rears -disguising it as nationalism. We each made about half of our respective points in passionate franglais, with a harried waiter summoned repeatedly to make perfect translation. He learned more about the internal workings of Canadian and New York dairy policy in the next hour than he will in a lifetime.

When you're among farmers, the coached acting soon gets replaced by what people feel and truly believe. No one's minds were changed at that restaurant table -nor probably ever will -of whether it was good or bad long-term for the dairy economy, if Greek yogurt replaced the majority of what was presently being sold.

But how on earth do you stop that? Could the manufacturers of my antiquated cell phone -which suits my needs I tell them as I wave it around -have government stop companies introducing the newer models into Canada, literally connecting everything in the world to its user? It's lunacy to even consider the thought.

In 2007 there was no Greek yogurt in the U.S. In 2011 it had 60 per cent of the market. They can't keep Chobani delivered fast enough to the large dairy outlet at the NY-Canadian border near Cornwall, because Canadians are snapping it up, I tell them. All farmers agreed that a total of 20 lawyers is overkill and expensive. Yet an email from a DFO employee the week before informed me such legal wrangling is part of the "checks and balances available in Canada" for supply management.

Are these lines from actors playing their roles in a play, or do they really believe them? I have no clue.

Especially in light of the Chobani lawyer revealing once confidential information on how they were going to source skim milk powder from wherever, rather than Ontario producers' milk. Would that be why DFO claimed -correctly in the technical sense -that they would be selling very little raw milk to the huge proposed plant?

The extent to which acting lawyers know their lines, but not their subject, was starkly revealed when the best entertainer of the lot -from the processor side -was drawing on detailed points of law regarding Maple Lodge Poultry being granted government imports several years back. The case was argued back and forth repeatedly as to its merits of being invoked in this potential decision.

"Chickens are not supply-managed, but they still have permits," thundered the lawyer, Simon Potter. The judge, apparently, did not realize that was a profound incorrect statement. But surely the DFO lawyer Graham Lloyd did? Yet it wasn't even mentioned in the rebuttal from the lawyers on his side, despite being a potential knockout punch. Why? I don't know.

I do know there's a lot of Chobani acting left, on and off the stage.

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