The Controversy: When interests collide, OFA defends farming over individual farmers
By Connor Lynch
GUELPH — The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is the largest farm organization in Ontario by a significant margin. The 38,000-member federation represents farmers from across industries, regions and backgrounds. They count beef farmers, crop farmers, dairy farmers, sheep farmers, flower and vegetable growers among their members. Some members just qualify as farmers, peeking over the $7,000/year minimum farm sale requirement. Others own multi-million dollar operations that have been handed down for generations. They farm in sandy soils, along shorelines, on clay and on hills and valleys.
That’s a lot to balance, and like it or not, the interests of individual farmers aren’t always aligned with the interests of farming in general. President Keith Currie is only too aware of this as the OFA has taken a stance against farmers wanting to sell farmland for development, particularly in the Toronto Greenbelt. “We’re certainly about protecting land for the purpose of farmland,” even when it means some farmers can’t sell that land as their retirement package, or at least for not as much, Currie said. “We know there will be times when people aren’t happy. But if it benefits the industry as a whole. That’s what we do.”
While the OFA has always worked in the interest of farming in general, as well as for individual farmers’ interests, a big change happened around 2008. The OFA board contracted massively, going from an over 100-member board down to 18. “The number and breadth of issues we looked at was massive.”
Now the OFA keeps its focus on province-wide issues, or at least ones that cover areas bigger than a county. If it’s county-level, they count on the county federation to deal with it. “We can’t run to every fire. It’s not possible.”
Cash crop farmer and Lambton County councillor Kevin Marriott can see both sides. “A bigger part of me would rather the OFA not be involved with, as heavy as they have been, supporting the Greenbelt. I kind of have sympathy for those farmers.”
And, he added, he’s concerned that the OFA is somewhat talking out of both sides of its mouth. “The OFA also supporting the wind energy stuff that the Wynne government did. That took many acres out of production. In my mind, that’s a complete contradiction.”
Nevertheless, he does think that as a general philosophy, defending farming rather than farmers when the two conflict, is the right way to go. It’s just a question of how that’s applied. In the case of development, “I think enough parts of society are already trying to protect land from being developed that we don’t need OFA in there as well.”
For some farmers, the defence of farming position is an excuse. “When the OFA says they take a stance, I wouldn’t want them to have my back if I was in a fight,” said Lambton County farmer Joe Kerr. “Right now, my perception of the OFA is that they’re a bunch of softies that chat and drink tea. If that’s what they want me to see, that’s what I see.”
In the past, the OFA has faced accusations of weakness and being too close with the government. The organization replied by saying that it needs to be close to government to do its job. As for weakness, Currie pointed out that dressing someone down in public is the sort of thing you can only do once, and it might cost you the relationship entirely.
Belmont-area farmer and OFA policy advisory committee member Marcel Meyer said erring on the side of farming, not farmers, is the right call.
“I’m one for consensus and sometimes that means one individual’s issue can’t be the big picture issue,” he said. “That’s not what the organization stands for. And it’s been tough to defend both sides. Sometimes you can’t. Isn’t that life?”