CFA membership drops but still important voice

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture recently lost another member, fuelling new questions about whether the organization can continue to be relevant in an increasingly fractionalized industry.


The simple answer is, of course it can.


The landscape around the CFA might be changing, but just as agricultural businesses, farmers and other organizations find new roles, so too has the CFA.


The Canadian Pork Council probably didn’t surprise many people when it announced that it was pulling out of the CFA after 40 years.


The CFA, with its powerful core of members from the supply-managed industries of dairy, poultry and egg producers, has been a staunch supporter of that system. 


It has lobbied the federal government to hold fast in international trade talks to save the tariff rates and quota protections that prop up the system, even though others say that defence comes at the expense of freer trade gains for other sectors, including pork.


The loss of the pork council was just the latest loss for the CFA. The prairie wheat pools are gone, replaced by multinationals that care little for getting involved in day-to-day policy discussions with an umbrella farm group. 


Farmers have set up numerous commodity groups. Grain Growers of Canada has assumed much of the responsibilities for representing grain farmer interests in Ottawa, while canola, flax, pulses, cattle, pork and most other sectors all have groups specifically dedicated to their interests.


That leaves the CFA with a core of supply-managed industries, provincial general farm groups and Alberta Sugar Beet Growers.


We are living in a world of niche markets, in which farmers were encouraged to diversify and have done so with great success. 


So it should not surprise anybody that the CFA finds itself unable to be all things to all these varied interests. But that does not make it unnecessary.


In fact, if taken too far, a less representative and powerful CFA should set off warning bells. Past governments have expressed difficulty in finding a strong, central voice that can speak on key issues for the majority of farmers. 


And we should be careful about making it too easy for governments to pick and choose who it will invite to consultations. 


Having one strong voice that can be heard above the din to give clear indications where farmers stand on key issues such as farm safety nets, environmental initiatives, food policies, rail costs and biofuel can have huge benefits.


This government in particular has shown scant interest in gathering input from those representing a wide array of farmer opinion. There are many issues on which farmers still have common ground. Supply management protections versus freer trade need not be the defining issue for the CFA.


Most countries enter trade negotiations with key industries they want to protect. Canada’s stand on supply management while also pressing for greater access to international markets for other sectors is not unique and not necessarily at odds.


The CFA could back out of the trade debate completely and declare itself as having no official stand on international trade matters, which could anger a core group of members, especially in Ontario and Quebec. But it shouldn’t have to. The many sectors of agriculture have more in common than not. The two camps of the trade issue can co-exist and should. 


As well, it might be possible for the CFA and other farm groups to form coalitions and co-operate on areas of mutual concern outside of trade.

Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.