Should we hang together or hang separately?

With the protracted and acrimonious debate over the Canadian Wheat Board now ancient history, Canadian farmers and farm organizations are arguably more united on issues than they have been in decades.

For years, the CWB monopoly issue polarized farm groups and limited co-operation. In some cases, it tore organizations apart. In other cases, farm groups took no position on the monopoly, but that failed to appease membership.

Farm Group A couldn’t co-operate with Farm Group B because they had different views on the CWB. Meanwhile, all sorts of other issues were ignored.

The situation now isn’t perfect. There’s still a plethora of voices speaking for agriculture, particularly in the grain sector, but there’s no longer such a sharp philosophical divide and no elephant in the room.

The biggest post-CWB change in the farm organizational landscape has been the rise of levy funded commissions for wheat and barley in each prairie province. Some of the elected directors are farmers who took strong stands either for or against the CWB monopoly, but there are many areas of agreement when they discuss research and development priorities.

The greatest example of co-operation across the grain sector has been the common front presented by farmers on grain transportation reform. There are minor differences of approach, but there’s a tremendous amount of common ground. The importance of a united message to government cannot be overestimated.

Nationally, the issue of supply management has the potential to be divisive, pitting the dairy and poultry sectors against the grain and red meat sectors, which are export dependent. However, this hasn’t become a major battleground. Each side seems to respect the other’s position, and there’s co-operation on initiatives such as gaining and maintaining public trust in the food system.

“If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately,” said Benjamin Franklin, and this is certainly an apt quote for today’s agriculture.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 121st annual meeting of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. Farmers there face many challenges foreign to those of prairie producers.

Nova Scotia’s population isn’t that much less than Saskatchewan’s, but agriculture has gross farm receipts of around $600 million a year compared to $14 billion in Saskatchewan. What’s more, agriculture in Nova Scotia is extremely diverse with dairy, poultry, mink farming, wild blueberries, vegetables, fruits, bees and greenhouses.

Blueberries and mink are having a difficult time. Blueberry production has outpaced demand, and the price has plummeted. Meanwhile, mink pelt prices have been far below the cost of production for an extended period of time.

As well, the province has a huge provincial deficit, an aging population and a harmonized sales tax of 15 percent.

Each sector of agriculture is represented in the federation, which is also part of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. This sort of structure exists in Manitoba through Keystone Agricultural Producers, but the general farm organizations in Saskatchewan and Alberta do not have such an effective umbrella, and the CFA is seldom mentioned in those provinces.

In a society that understands less and less about agriculture, farmers increasingly need to work together and speak with a common voice. This isn’t always easy. There will continue to be many voices speaking on behalf of farmers but when the message is co-ordinated, it has a much greater effect.

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