By Connor Lynch
GUELPH — Being close to the government isn’t a bad place to be, if it’s done in the right way.
So said Keith Currie, who was re-elected president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Ontario’s largest general farm organization with more than 37,000 member-families, at the annual general meeting last month in Hamilton. Currie ran against vice-president Peggy Brekveld and took 57 per cent of the vote.
It’s his fourth one-year term. Only four others have stayed in office as long: Firebrand Gordon Hill, Roger George, Rod Bonnett and H.H. Hannam.
Gordon Hill, in particular, was an active and combative president, leading and participating in multiple protests during his tenure in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Every president has a different style, said Currie. For the past three years and into this term, Currie has focused on building relationships, both within the farming and farm-related industries and with government.
The CN rail strike last month was a perfect example of how good relationships can get the job done, he said, as multiple commodity and general farm organizations pulled together to pressure the federal government, which declined to intervene. The union struck a tentative deal on Nov. 26, a week after the strike started.
Producing Prosperity is the OFA’s plan for growth and infrastructure spending in rural Ontario. This plan was a different tack for the organization, a “forward-thinking campaign,” one that deals with key points that politicians can sell to constituents: Economic development, environmental sustainability and food security while at the same time expanding natural gas, Internet access, rural schools and building better roads, bridges and proper drainage systems. “It makes it an easier sell,” he said.
Relationships go both ways, hence the adage “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” However, some farmers are concerned that the scratching is going too much one way.
“It’s easy to come to that conclusion if you’re not in the trenches,” Currie said. “I intentionally got myself in a position where I can walk up to chiefs of staff, shut the door, and have an honest conversation. If I need to yell at somebody, I do. If you yell at someone in public, you can do that once. If someone puts you down in public, are you going to open the door for them again?”
Bill 66 was a prime example. The Tory-led province introduced it last year, and it contained provisions that would’ve opened up land, especially in the Greenbelt, for commercial development. “I looked a couple of ministers in the eye and said, ‘This is the hill I’m going to die on.’” They pulled that part of the bill.
Behind-the-scenes politics and relationship building can be hard to trace to tangible results but here’s one example. The recently-introduced omnibus Bill 132 cut down on the paperwork requirements for farmers looking to use neonicotinoid pesticides. That was a bill that the OFA and Grain Farmers of Ontario both discussed with the government. “That’s a great example of how the government can work with industry, whether that’s ag or anyone else,” he said.
Currie wants the OFA to be the place that the provincial government, whoever is in power, turns to, or at least listens to, when they do anything that affects farms.
“I spent a lot of time building relationships within multiple parties, so when I need to use (those relationships), I can call or walk in and get a response,” Currie said, adding that he can walk into Ag Minister Ernie Hardeman’s office whenever he needs to. Ministers and staff call the OFA on a regular basis to consult them. “I think it’s great for the industry.”
Build relationships to get things done, OFA president says
By Connor Lynch