Canada’s 200,000 family farms rarely speak with a unified voice to ministers and people in power
“Ignored” has become a familiar word for readers of agricultural publications.
Media stories regularly appear about agriculture being ignored in government budgets or in leaders debates and campaign platforms.
Farm leaders and industry representatives typically say agriculture doesn’t receive its due because the public and politicians are disconnected from food production, or that Canadians don’t comprehend the size and significance of agriculture.
But there might be another reason why farming is frequently ignored: Canada’s agricultural community is fractured into dozens of groups.
Consequently, the country’s 200,000 family farms rarely speak with a unified voice to ministers and people in power.
“This is not a negative statement about farm organizations, but the individuals involved in agriculture on an individual farm … and on an organization basis, it’s not unlike herding cats,” said Lyle Vanclief, former federal minister of agriculture.
Vanclief said he tried to meet with as many farm groups as possible during his time as ag minister from 1997 to 2003, but sorting through conflicting messages was a challenge.
“It’s extremely difficult for a minister to get the real feel (for positions and priorities),” said Vanclief, who now works as a consultant and sits on boards in Ontario.
“Once in a while … there would be members of a group that would say, ‘our executive, our board of directors, doesn’t represent (us).’ ”
Vanclief said he consulted with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which promotes itself as the “single voice in Ottawa” for Canadian farmers. The CFA has 24 member groups, mostly provincial general farm organizations and commodity groups.
However, several of those groups are small, such as Canadian Hatching Egg Producers, which represents 230 farmers.
The CFA does have member groups in Saskatchewan and Alberta — the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and the Alberta Federation of Agriculture — but they represent a small number of farmers compared to major commodity groups.
SaskCanola, which has 26,000 levy-paying members, is not part of the CFA.
“In theory, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture speaks (for many), but at the same time … all the individual organizations don’t belong to the CFA,” Vanclief said.
He said the diverse array of groups in Canadian agriculture is distinct from the automotive industry, which typically speaks with a unified voice.
“There isn’t a (separate) organization or a group that represents glove box covers and trunk lids and mirrors and fenders and hoods on cars,” he said.
“But in the agriculture industry, they’ve got the wheat producers, the corn guys, the pork, the beef, supply management, and etcetera.”
Amanda Lang, a well-known business journalist, has also said that Canada’s agri-food industry needs a loud and unified messenger.
“Have your voice. Know how important you are,” she told the Canadian Agri-Food Forum last November in Ottawa.
“I don’t know whether the top forces of this industry get together regularly … (but) organize yourselves.”
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) lists agricultural associations on its website. There are hundreds of provincial organizations on the list, with dozens in each province:
- Ontario: 79 groups
- British Columbia: 68 groups
- Alberta: 47 groups
- Saskatchewan: 41 groups
- Manitoba: 38 groups
As well, CAHRC lists 87 groups that are national organizations. Some of them, such as the Canadian Guernsey Association, aren’t major players, but 20 to 30 groups do have power and influence.
As a result, a cabinet minister or federal MP who wanted to understand the issues and concerns of western Canadian farmers would probably need to meet with 15 or 20 groups.
“Who do you go to? Because everybody tends to have their own axe to grind,” said Cam Goff, a producer from Hanley, Sask., and former chair of SaskBarley.
Goff said the lack of unity is problematic for Saskatchewan farmers and the agriculture industry because it allows government to drive a wedge between groups.
“I think we are very much suffering because … any government, if they look around, will find somebody that agrees with them,” he said.
“Why should they listen to the Saskatchewan Wheat Commission when maybe the Alberta Wheat Commission has a different idea. That (division) is certainly … working to the detriment of farmers.”
The former federal Conservative government was adept at exploiting differing opinions within the ag community, said Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.
KAP is the largest farm organization in Manitoba and represents almost all of the province’s commodity groups, but agriculture minister Gerry Ritz held events in Winnipeg and didn’t invite KAP.
“What happens with any government is they have trusted organizations,” Mazier said.
“They’ll invite them in first, the trusted organization, they (the group) will say the sound bite and they’ll be invited to the next party…. (That) was rampant in the last government.”
It’s the responsibility of elected boards to set the direction of commodity and farm groups, said AFA president Lynn Jacobson.
They could choose to co-operate more frequently but they often remain separate because it’s easier, he added.
“One remark that has stuck with me is what (one organization) said: ‘We like what a GFO (general farm organization) does, but we can’t join your group because then we might have to compromise our position on something,’ ” he said.
“Every (group) has staked out territory in the western provinces, and nobody wants to give up any of it.”
SaskPulse chair Tim Wiens said commissions do work within partnerships, but they typically team up with a national group, such as Pulse Canada, to resolve issues within their sector.
“(We) collaborate more at the national level than we do at a provincial level,” he said.
“Are there issues that are common for all of the commodity groups, where you could get together and maybe have more influence? All I can say is maybe.”
Leaders of Western Canada’s general farm organizations do meet to discuss common concerns, and commodity groups do collaborate on certain issues.
However, Mazier said singing from the same songbook is the exception, rather than the rule, in Western Canada.
“Alberta, you look at how fragmented that is. They’ve got lots of different voices (and) they’re a really good example of not being centralized,” he said.
“They don’t have a strong, general farm organization pulling them together.”
Alberta commodity groups recently united around a common cause. Thirty organizations joined a coalition around the issue of Bill 6, proposed provincial legislation to set health, safety and labour standards on farms.
“The crop and livestock sectors came together in a historic collaboration, unified by a common goal to represent the agriculture industry with a single voice as it relates to Bill 6,” said coalition co-chair Page Stuart.
Mazier said the coalition could easily transform into a general farm organization that could be the “single voice” for Alberta family farms on multiple issues.
“They’re right on the cusp of being something…. They have the organization sitting right there in front of them.”
The Alberta groups that united around Bill 6 aren’t planning to turn the coalition into a permanent organization, said Kevin Auch, Alberta Wheat Commission chair, but he hasn’t completely ruled it out.
“There’s always strength in numbers. That’s why with Bill 6 we got together,” he said.
“Whether there are other issues like Bill 6 that we could do the same thing, we’re not sure at this point…. There’s a possibility that we could morph this into something, but at this point there are no plans for it.”
Commodity groups and individual producers in Alberta may object because a general farm group struggles to represent all of its members.
“A lot of the issues that would affect a livestock (producer) really has no bearing on a grain farm,” Auch said. “Or they even have conflicting interests. That’s where a general farm organization has difficulties.”
The Canadian Wheat Board and the debate over its role divided prairie farm groups for decades. The CWB debate is now dead, with the exception of a few holdouts, and its demise may pave the way for more co-operation, said CFA president Ron Bonnett.
“That’s over with now, and I think that’s one of the changes that likely makes it easier now to develop common positions,” he said.
“(Now) there’s likely more difference sometimes between ourselves and the National Farmers Union than there is between ourselves and some of the commodity groups. I think there’s been a coming together with (the CFA) and a lot of the large commodity organizations.”
Wiens said western Canadian producers could lobby groups to join forces and speak with a collective voice, but he thinks farmers appear to be content with the status quo.
“If farmers had issues with the way they are being represented, I would assume they would be more vocal,” he said.
“I don’t know if farmers are really asking for change right now.”