06/28/2012 04:45 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadian Wheat Board: Gerry Ritz, Agriculture Minister, Pledges $349 Million To Help Board On Open Market

WINNIPEG - The federal government is injecting cash into the Canadian Wheat Board to help it deal with new competition in an open market.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says Ottawa will put up $349 million to help pay for the severance and pensions of former workers, computer systems and other items.

"Legacy costs would not help the CWB drive the Canadian economy," Ritz said Thursday in Winnipeg.

"We want to make sure that it is a strong, viable option to allow Western Canadian farmers, now all farmers across Canada, with all commodities, to make use of this and help drive their own economies."

Wheat board president Ian White says the money will ensure the agency is ready for business come Aug. 1.

"Farmers can move ahead now and sign CWB contracts with confidence, they can be assured that we are open for business and ready to serve them well in this new environment as their trusted grain partner."

White added that most farmers "have indicated they want to do and continue to do business with the CWB."

The money is unlikely to silence critics who say the government is killing the board.

Ritz passed a law last year to strip the board of its monopoly over western wheat and barley sales as of Aug. 1.

The move has divided farmers: some say they can get higher prices in an open market, while others say the board's monopoly prevented producers from competing against each other for sales.

The change has also led to several court battles, including a Federal Court lawsuit by board supporters who are seeking $17 billion in damages and an order restoring the board's monopoly.

(The Canadian Press, CKRM)