November is election month for Ontario’s largest farm organization, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). It should be something farmers care about. But I dare say that most don’t. Sure, they’re busy but they also need a reason to be interested.
Who’s running this year? Most farmers don’t know and those I asked didn’t give it much thought. Few farmers attend their own county federation meetings. When OFA president Don McCabe showed up for a meeting in Prince Edward County, there were only about seven farmers in the room.
Many farmers think government is not listening. But that’s not the whole story. What has the OFA really and concretely achieved to help grassroots farmers in the last five years? I asked some farmers and got one answer: OFA successfully lobbied to have provincial taxes removed on small tires. But not on tires that most farmers use on their farms. Joked one farmer: “They got the tax taken off bicycle tires.”
To be fair, when you represent 1 % of the population, it’s hard to get the ear of the province that seems to pay more attention to social media. But it’s also not encouraging when your goal is as vague as “working closely” with government.
Remember the 2004 OFA election? The wild card protesting machine, the Ontario Landowners Association and its take-charge leader of tractor rallies, Lanark’s John Vanderspank, arrived in Toronto for the OFA annual general meeting.
While the OFA spent years lobbying for hunting permits to shoot deer that were eating crops, Vanderspank organized one protest with farmers by piling hay bales at the entrance to the Ministry of Natural Resources office in Kemptville. The next day, any farmer needing a permit got one.
The OFA executive was in a panic when Vanderspank announced he was running for president, increasing the field of candidates to three. Worried that Vanderspank might win, Spencerville hog farmer Geri Kamenz dropped out of the race to avoid splitting the vote and threw his support behind Ron Bonnett.
A can-do candidate arrives on the scene and the reaction is to shut him down. The tension didn’t last long. Bonnett won easily, 257 to 57. So maybe a feared OLA take-over justified Kamenz’s move. But not what happened next.
The OFA executive closed ranks and changed the rules. From then on, only directors from county boards could run for president. So, you have to first win at the county level, endure one year on the OFA executive and then run for president. It didn’t completely ruin any hope for change. But it made life that much harder for grassroots farmers who want to make a difference.
The OFA seems to know what it doesn’t want. I agree with farmers who lament that the OFA needs to be more clear about what it wants, including a bolder vision with clear and concrete goals.
Many crop farmers last year were infuriated with the OFA for taking what appeared to be a pussy-footing, duplicitous stand on the biggest issue of the year: neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds. The Minister of Agriculture defended his province’s position based on the “precautionary principle,” a stand so ridiculous, it’s jaw-dropping, with barely a word from the OFA.
In a 2015 commentary to farmers, McCabe noted that the province’s plan to dramatically lower levels of neonic-treated seed was “not evidence-based” but in a later commentary he repeated that the OFA plan will be to work closely with the province for a solution. But with few positives to date for grain farmers, what’s the OFA strategy now?
Fewer than two months ago, we heard the Ontario throne speech outlining the Liberal government’s next two years. OFA vice-president Keith Currie, who is also running for president this year, responded with a written commentary that said this about rising electricity costs: “To hear the government recognize that rising costs are hurting household budgets across Ontario is a step in the right direction.”
To work closely with government and to step in the right direction are positive ideas. But there is no measurement for a successful outcome. The goals are murky at best. It’s understandable that farmers lose interest.
Patrick Meagher is the editor of Farmers Forum. He can be reached at 613-247-1334 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.