By Connor Lynch
STAFFA — After three years — dominated by the province’s clampdown on neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybeans seeds — Mark Brock stepped down last month as Grain Farmers of Ontario chair (a farmer can only be chair for three years). Eastern Ontario cash crop farmer Markus Haerle now takes the reins of the 28,000-member organization.
Brock plans on serving out his two-year term as a director, ending in 2019, and then stepping entirely away from GFO leadership. He farms 1,400 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Perth County at Staffa, an hour west of Kitchener.
Farmers Forum spoke with Brock about his time. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
So, neonics were the biggest issue during your time as chair. Looking back on how things turned out, would you do anything differently?
It dominated my first two years. I can’t look back and say I wish we’d done things differently. Hindsight is always 20/20. I think really the challenge we had at the time was taking the information that we had and representing our members the best we could, based on membership feeling on the issue.
Based on that, I wouldn’t change our approach. I think the membership was happy with how we handled the situation, whether we liked the outcome or not. We did the best we could at the time with the information that we had.
Are relations between the GFO and the province strained at all in light of the neonics issue?
I always felt that we were very professional about how we handled ourselves. We had a bigger issue with the Ministry of the Environment. OMAFRA got caught in the crossfire. They had to go with how their government wanted things. (That) strained relationships with OMAFRA at the time. But I would say now our relationship with OMAFRA, which is more critical for us, is good. We’re still held in high regard even though we may not have agreed on the outcome of a specific issue. If we come into a contentious issue again, I fully expect that the GFO would hold government accountable to the process and act professionally. We’ll work with them when we agree, and we’ll challenge them if we feel they aren’t right on an issue.
The GFO and the province seem to view the role of science in policy-making somewhat differently. How does the GFO view the province’s approach to science?
I think the GFO learned more about the process of policy development and the influence of environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and public concern. Government also learned they can’t listen to a lone interest, whether ag or private industry. Industry needs to be a critical part of discussions. NGOs play a role, but science plays a critical role in policy development. I think we all learned a lesson.
Do politics get involved in that discussion? Absolutely. No matter how it happens, politics will get mixed up. I think we all learned that the province has learned science needs to be the foundation. Hopefully the province has learned that.
Look at the phosphorus issue. It’s definitely been collaborative. It’s an outcome industry and government are both happy with, and it’s a model for how things should happen. Neonics turned out poorly, for both the government and industry. Hopefully we all use the phosphorus model going forward to deal with these issues.
Are there any sleeper issues out there? Things that the GFO accomplished that didn’t make headlines or were done quietly?
To be honest, the one thing that I’ve been proud of is the organization and how we handled ourselves in neonics. Rebuilding the relationship with government to the point where we collaborated on phosphorus. Or encouraging the feds to implement a review of Business Risk Management, that was collaborative between GFO and OMAFRA. Just to be able to go from a very tenuous relationship to one of collaboration and cooperation, I think it speaks highly of the character and professionalism of our organization.
True to our word, we’re there for our membership. On neonics, members weren’t happy and (the regulations were) very invasive. We took the government to court twice. I think it speaks to the fact that governments do play a role in our industry and there needs to be some form of a working relationship there.
When we need to push back, we push back, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work together when there are issues we agree on.
What do you see as the next issue for grain farmers in the next few years, and what does the GFO need to do about it?
The transition to a low-carbon economy. Translates into a higher cost of business. Either through action around climate change, energy, minimum wage. All are small impacts that add up to the big impact on the farm. Ultimately, it’s going to be the major issue of all commodity groups. How do we work through the high cost of doing business in Ontario?
We could push back and pit common sense against regulation (or) work with government to say, 1 per cent of the population can have a big impact. How do we create an opportunity for an income stream?
Is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you think is important?
Three years go by quickly. When you spend a lot of it really immersed in neonics, you lose sight of small victories along the way. I’m very proud of what we’ve done to communicate with the public what we do and build trust. After the neonic situation, I think we realized it’s an area we needed to put more effort into.