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Saskatchewan dairy farmers caught in the middle of turbulent NAFTA talks

Why did Trump turn Canada’s small dairy industry into big target?
WATCH ABOVE: As the U.S. and Canada try to renegotiate NAFTA, experts caution President Donald Trump's focus on Canada's dairy industry may jeopardize progress. Jackson Proskow has more on Trump's strategy.

Nearly 3,000 kilometres away from heated NAFTA negotiations in Washington, D.C.,  Saskatchewan farmers are trying to focus on the task at hand.

“I’ve got to get out there and drive a combine,” dairy farmer Mel Foth, who also serves as Sask Milk’s chair, said. ” I’ve got a dairy farm to run, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on this.  But there is that underlying concern out there that we’re at a vulnerable time.”

As Canada rejoins the fray, dairy producers feel unfairly caught in the middle as U.S> President Donald Trump targets how much foreign milk Canada allows in.

READ MORE: Why did Donald Trump attack the Canadian dairy industry?

“Canada actually allows 10 per cent of our dairy market in tariff-free from other countries,” Sask Milk manager of policy and communications Joy Smith noted. “The U.S. only allows three per cent of their market tariff-free. The U.S. is actually more protectionist than Canada in dairy.”

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Smith added the United States actually has a trade surplus with Canada.

“There’s more cows in Wisconsin than there is in all of Canada. We’re not going to solve the U.S.’s overproduction problem. We’re not going to be able to fix all their problems with overproduction by opening up our market to dumping,” Smith emphasized.

At the heart of the matter, is Canada’s supply management system.

Essentially, it ensures farmers are only producing as much product as the Canadian market demands. Farmers can sell their milk for a set price, while retailers pick their own price tag. In theory, it provides stability for the market, food costs and farmers alike. In the United States and many European countries, farmers receive subsidies from the federal government instead.

WATCH BELOW: Saskatchewan dairy farmers caught in the middle of turbulent NAFTA talks

Saskatchewan dairy farmers caught in the middle of turbulent NAFTA talks
Saskatchewan dairy farmers caught in the middle of turbulent NAFTA talks

Speaking Wednesday in Kapuskasing, Ont.,  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubled down on his commitment to the practice.

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“No NAFTA deal is better than a bad NAFTA deal,” Trudeau declared.  “Our government, and I personally, will stand up to defend supply management and defend our dairy farmers. That’s something we’ve made very clear to the Americans even though it has been very obvious the Americans want us to get rid of supply management. That is not acceptable to us.”

READ MORE: Dairy prices could drop if Canada loosened supply management terms: experts

In a media scrum Tuesday, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Trade and Export Development said Ottawa should be open to having the conversation.

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be an outcome where you see a complete dismantling of supply management in the short term,” Jeremy Harrison said. “But I think there’s elements that have been dealt with in CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) and CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) where there have been changes to the supply management that haven’t been the end of the world.”

“We need to get a deal,” Harrison added. “This is incredibly important for our economy, which is probably the most export-dependent (province) in the entire country.”

READ MORE: Trudeau stands firm on supply management as Trump turns up the heat on NAFTA talks

For farming families like Foth’s, the turbulent talks couldn’t come at a worse time, with many producers in the midst of expanding operations due to rising demand.

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“The national system would potentially have to produce less milk if more access is given,” Foth said. “That has an impact on every single farmer, the processors (and) employees. It has a massive economic impact.”

Leaving nearly 5,000 Saskatchewan dairy sector workers with bated breath as NAFTA negotiations reach a boiling point.

“We want to see a successful trade deal,” Smith said. “We just don’t think one industry needs to be sold down the river in order to achieve it.”