GUELPH — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is by far the province’s largest general farm organization with more than 38,000 member families out of 57,211 census-recorded Ontario farms. It represents 87 per cent of farm business registrations, according to its general manager Cathy Lennon. Last year the non-profit organization took in $8.2 million.
But not all is rosy. Fresh blood is not knocking at the door. New directors are increasingly acclaimed, rather than elected, and are often approached by their predecessor to run. Would-be presidents have to first be on the board before running for office. And, according to a recent OFA poll, only 20 per cent of members regularly attend meetings. Are farmers too busy or too apathetic, and is the organization being insulated from new ideas?
Lanark County crop farmer John Vanderspank has long been a critic of the OFA but also of mandatory farm organization membership. “They’ve been redundant since stable funding came in. They never had to earn their money,” he said. It’s because of Vanderspank that the OFA changed the rules about running for president. He was also a member of the feisty Lanark Landowners Association when he arrived at an annual meeting and announced his candidacy for an election to be held the next day. He lost but the OFA was so alarmed it changed the rules to limit running for president to executive board members.
Vanderspank said the organization is far too friendly to the Liberal Party and is broadly ineffectual. “You cannot name one positive thing OFA’s done for farmers since they got rid of the land tax deal in the 80s,” he said.
Former director Debra Pretty-Straathof couldn’t disagree more. She stepped down this year after 20 years as the Arnprior, Lanark, Ottawa and Renfrew representative.
“I’m terribly biased, but it’s a truly amazing organization,” she said. “After all these years, all we’ve been through, I can still say that. Yeah, I drank the Kool-aid, but it really is (amazing).”
Grassroots engagement has always been an issue, as is OFA perception by its members, she said. She suspects many farmers are too busy to get involved, not apathetic. “But if it’s apathy, they’re not paying attention,” she said. Straathof said the $50 million boost to Risk Management Programs that the province moved up by a year took significant legwork by OFA and the other farm organizations. “It wasn’t out of the goodness of their heart that the government moved that up.”
Said Straathof: “When you’ve got an org that’s been around for close to 90 years, maybe it’s taken for granted.”
Straathof said she’d be more concerned about lack of engagement if the organization wasn’t getting a lot of feedback. But, she said, the OFA regularly surveys its members to take the pulse and there’s lots of positive response from across the province. It’s not that producers don’t care; but most, she says, feel the organization is doing a good job and “if you think things are being done well, you leave them alone.”
As for the lack of competitive director elections, rather than acclamations, she says the OFA is working diligently to attract new people and it’s not as though everyone’s getting acclaimed. The idea that the OFA is being numbed to new ideas is a disturbing one, she said. “That would be the death of the organization.”
Her regional successor, Renfrew’s Jennifer Doelman, agreed that part of the problem attracting new blood is that farmers are busy and directors have a lot of work to do. If farmers are young, they often have children and mortgages to manage. If they’re retired, this may not be how they want to spend their golden years.
“A lot of us in ag are already wearing too many hats,” she said. “Right now I think people are happy if someone halfway competent steps up.”
Doelman said she never felt like she’d been picked to be a director. “I volunteered for this.” She’d been mulling the idea and cemented it after attending a Canadian Federation of Agriculture meeting that introduced farmers to how it all works. She also had a couple of conversations with Straathof.
People have sent her as many condolences as congratulations after she was acclaimed. “They know it’s kind of a thankless job,” Doelman said. “I know I’m gonna get yelled at a lot. But I also know we’re gonna do a lot of good.”
OFA president Keith Currie flatly disagreed with the idea that directors seek out like-minded successors. “I’m in my last term,” Currie said. I’m not looking for a mini-me.”
He added that: “We try to encourage as many people as possible to run. And certainly directors have looked for people to replace them. Saying we’re going out for someone that’s going to bring the exact same values, look at things the same way, that’s unfair. We’re looking for the best people.”
And, of course, the pool of people to draw from is getting smaller, while people get busier as operations grow, he said. “At the end of the day, we can’t force people to run. They have to want to do it.”