‘Linguistic minority’ farmer finds strength in farm group

FARRELLTON, Que. – She has been dealing with the results of several

years of drought that reduced her hay crop and led to worries about

feeding her herd through the winter.

She has to deal with a provincial government that imposes increasing

environmental regulations on her cow-calf operation near a creek and

the Gatineau River.

She has a son at Olds College in Alberta who dreams of becoming a

farmer, but his preference for the dairy industry is financially out of

the question.

And she represents minority-language English-speaking farmers in a

province that is overwhelmingly French.

Welcome to the complicated world of Cindy Duncan-McMillan, a West

Quebec cattle producer who is president of the English-language farm

organization Quebec Farmers’ Association, or QFA.

“It’s a great life, a privilege to be a farmer,” says the 45-year-old

daughter of a farmer who never doubted what she wanted to do in life.

“I always knew I would farm.”

She and husband Myles McMillan started to rent land in 1983, 30

kilometres west of her home in Poltimore, Que.

They started small, both with jobs in Ottawa 50 km south. Now, they own

and rent close to 600 acres and run a cow-calf herd that includes more

than 100 breeding heifers.

“We have working girls,” she says of her heifers. “They all are

expected to earn their keep or they are gone.”

It is a big farm by West Quebec standards. Cindy now works full-time on

the farm when she is not engaged in farm politics. Myles works off-farm

with the department of national defence to supplement the farm income.

Their herd has been strengthened by bulls purchased in Western Canada.

And like their counterparts in the West, the Duncan-McMillan farm has

had to deal with several years of little rainfall.

“The last few years have been tough,” she said. “There has been little

rain. We’ve had to sell sooner than we would like.”

With son Trevor, 19, at school in Olds, Cindy has spent time in the

West in recent months and has seen the effects of the drought

first-hand.

She has listened to him dreaming of coming back to buy into a dairy

operation. Quota and asset costs would total well over $1 million.

“I keep sending him lottery tickets,” she laughs. “Unless you are born

into it or independently rich, there is no way you can become a dairy

farmer. It’s a sad truth. I have told Trevor that.”

Quebec’s provincial farm support program does make it attractive to be

a cow-calf operator, though.

Farmers pay a heavy premium but they have a price guarantee for calves

born each year. There are payouts from the provincial program if market

prices fall below a price based in part on production costs.

This year, the guaranteed price per calf is in the $800 range.

“In the last 20 years, only two haven’t brought a payout,” said Myles.

Meanwhile, Cindy has found herself increasingly drawn into the farm

politics of Quebec. Ten years ago, she attended her first meeting of

the QFA, looking for more information.

As an officially unilingual French province, the 3,000 English-speaking

farmers often find it difficult to understand the implications of the

growing mound of government environmental and farm program documents

available only in French from Quebec City.

The QFA tries to be a bridge, making as much information as possible

available in English. This year, the QFA for the first time became a

full member of the powerful provincial farm lobby l’Union des

Producteurs Agricoles, or UPA.

Since last winter, Duncan-McMillan has been president of the English

farmers’ group.

“What keeps me motivated is a belief in the power of participation,”

she said. “Initially, I got involved just to find out what was going on.

“There may be rules proclaimed provincially that are administered

regionally,” she said. “It was taken for granted that all farmers had

access to all the information. That has not been true.”

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UPA under leader Jacques

Proulx, a fiery advocate of provincial independence, seemed unwelcoming

to anglos. Under current bilingual UPA president Laurent Pellerin, it

is a more confortable atmosphere.

Duncan-McMillan said there also is a strong reason for English-speaking

Quebec farmers to band together.

“When you are a linguistic minority, you tend to feel isolated,” she

said. “Associating with the QFA has removed much of that isolation …

the feeling of isolation is removed with the realization that we share

so much.”

Involvement with the UPA also gives her affiliation with the Canadian

Federation of Agriculture and the broader farm picture.

“Farm issues across the country are not all that different.”

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