By Connor Lynch
ELGIN COUNTY — Farmers who want Ontario’s largest farm organization, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, to go toe-to-toe with the provincial government are picking a fight farm country can’t win.
So said long-time director and former Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales, who is stepping away from the organization after 25 years.
The organization has taken a lot of heat from farmers over the years on many issues, from not listening to the grassroots to getting too cosy with government. Wales had a few messages for farmers: Working with government is a lot easier than working against it.
The provincial government doesn’t need farmer votes, so farmers need to pick their battles, Wales said. But thanks to the OFA’s lobbying, when the government wants to know what the agricultural issues are, they come to the OFA, he said.
Wales, a hot pepper, garlic, corn and soybean grower, is most proud of the OFA getting a commitment from the Wynne Liberals in 2013 on natural gas investment in rural Ontario. A dubious victory, however, as it took five years until just prior to the recent election for the province to move the file. Wales argued that a glacial pace is an occupational hazard when it comes to dealing with government.
Getting the commitment for natural gas wasn’t easy. It required a partnership with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the Rural Ontario Municipal Association, drawing on their much larger combined membership base of about four million. Mutual lobbying arrangements like that help the comparatively puny OFA, with its 38,000 members, get the ear of the province, Wales said.
When it comes to listening to the grassroots members, Wales is the first to admit it isn’t always easy, and farm country has faced down some seriously divisive issues. Wind power, Wales said, is a prime example. Some farmers loved it, others hated it, with no middle ground. The OFA’s policy guideline is: Help the most members you can without harming other members. On the wind issue, OFA was carefully neutral, he said. But it gave every appearance it was hand-in-glove with the Liberal Party. The OFA called for a moratorium on wind turbines but waited until after the 2011 provincial election to declare it.
Said Wales: “You want to be very careful about changing your stance just before an election and avoid the appearance of picking sides. You have to be careful about picking the wrong horse.”
But when one OFA director offered that the farm organization did not want to influence the election, for many farmers the cat was out of the bag.
Prior to the election, the OFA only said that there were problems with turbines that the government should not be ignoring. That lukewarm criticism earned Wales a very uncomfortable meeting with the then-energy minister, he said.
The late Gordon Hill, a firebrand of an OFA president in the early 1970s, who advocated a much more combative stance for the organization against the government, said in his 2017 autobiography: “We’re back to the time when the OFA is trying to be cosy with politicians. We need a new generation of hell-raisers.”
Wales doesn’t agree. Though he participated in the Highway 401 protest in 2005 that saw about 100 farmers slowly rumble their tractors along the four lanes, the OFA at the time was opposed to the protest. Said Wales: “(The protest) made a very dramatic statement that there was a problem. It took that public visibility to get the Liberals to finish RMP.”
But times are different. Farmers are an even smaller minority. The new seats added for the 2018 election were all urban.
In times of crisis, Wales said, he would support more direct action. But the timing has to be very carefully chosen. “Do you go out and rally, circle Queen’s Park? You can do it once, but you can’t do it all the time.” Gordon Hill was a hell-raiser in extremely difficult times. There are simply no modern crises like there were back then, Wales said. Sky-high interest rates breaking 20 per cent, poor prices on corn and soybeans meant some “people just walked away from the farm. It’s a different time now.”
Said Wales: “Inevitably, people are going to say we’re too close (to the government).” It was a complaint in farm country during the Wynne Liberals’ 15-year reign, and Wales foresees the same complaint under the Ford government.