Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Farmers' voice increasingly splintered

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Getting farmers to reach a consensus on anything has sometimes been likened to herding cats.

You could even say there are four seasons in agriculture -- seeding, spraying, harvesting and debating -- as the farmers who stick around tend to fill their cold Prairie winters with heated discussions over the issues of the day.

In the old days, those discussions took place at the annual meetings of general farm groups, such as the Prairie grain co-operatives, which at one time even maintained a full-time lobbyist to work on farmers' behalf in Ottawa.

There were also the general lobbies, such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which rolled the co-operatives and livestock groups under one umbrella to speak with an even more coherent and united voice on farm-policy issues.

When those groups got together, the information exchange and discussion went on for days. Debates were often passionate, but always civil under strictly enforced Robert's Rules of Order.

In retrospect, it was quite an accomplishment, given the diversity of interests that were involved. Grain farmers prefer high grain prices, whereas livestock farmers do better when feed prices are low. Farmers producing supply-managed commodities favour trade policies that protect their lock on the domestic market; export-oriented sectors favour open trade. There also were big/little farm debates, not to mention east versus west.

But at the end of the day, they were all farmers. The policy propositions that emerged reflected a grassroots level of engagement and understanding that despite their diversity, if one sector suffered, the health of the entire community was weakened.

But over the past 30 years or so, the general farm voice has become increasingly commodified as the number of crop-specific interest groups has grown.

Not only do we now have organizations representing specific commodities such as wheat, canola, flax and sunflowers, many of those associations are set up provincially as well as nationally. They are all providing similar functions, such as conducting research, market development and generally representing the interests of their commodity. Livestock groups are no different. Virtually all of these groups count on producer checkoffs to support their activities.

The general farm lobby, such as Keystone Agricultural Producers, also dependent on a checkoff, and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture still exist, but they are struggling, particularly in the case of the CFA. It lost three of its main supporters in the past year -- the Canadian Wheat Board because of changes to its mandate, the Canadian Horticultural Council due to financial problems and the Canadian Pork Council because it disagrees with CFA's ongoing support for supply management.

Following changes to the Canadian Wheat Board, there is now a whole new set of provincial commissions forming to collect checkoffs on wheat and barley.

Farmers are beginning to balk at the number of hands dipping into their pockets.

One of those farmers is Danny Penner, a Letellier-area farmer who launched a campaign recently to get farmers back into the same room. The difficulty of the task was underscored by the letter he sent out to farm organizations and the media.

"If you notice any organizations that have been missed on the list, please feel free to forward this email on to them with my apologies. The large and growing number of producer associations in Canada these days makes it tough to put together a complete list," he said.

"We are writing to request your support for the creation of a new producer-driven national farm organization that would work to solidify marketing systems for grains, oilseeds, pulses and special crops," Penner said.

Penner's pitch makes sense. But it is also about the dollars. By Penner's math, checkoffs are already costing farmers upwards of $20,000 annually for a mixed-crop farmer working 5,000 acres. At a time when farmer engagement in policy issues is already at an all-time low and farm leaders are increasingly difficult to find, this splintered approach is proving unsustainable.

Farmers have the option of withdrawing from these checkoffs. That's likely to happen. If it does, the farmers' voice will not only be splintered, it will be silenced.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 B9

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