Elected directors vital, but farmers must step up

Saskatchewan Pulse Growers did agricultural trade associations a favour by reviewing the composition of its board of directors in a public forum, which allowed for fruitful discussion.

At the annual general meeting, members voted to expand its board by two directors, who will be elected by the membership.

The SPG had proposed a plan to expand its seven-member board of directors by appointing two more members. This would help address the increasing demands on board members, who must often participate in other boards or committees as part of their responsibilities. The increase in numbers could also help address shortage of key expertise or geographic representation. As well, it was thought that the notion of a one-year appointed term could attract younger farmers.

The reasoning for expanding the board was fine. In fact, the board might have considered expanding by more than two. But the method — appointing directors — was always going to be contentious.

Still, no doubt other agricultural boards were watching the debate, which provided guidance for future changes.

The underlying issue is finding enough people to run for board elections, then getting producers to vote. The former is always a challenge. As for the latter, an active and energetic board can stimulate producers’ desire to vote. However, the leadership of agricultural associations must be left entirely in the hands of voters.

Many producers already feel they are losing power to large seed and chemical companies. It wouldn’t do to diminish their direct influence on how their associations operate.

SPG has an extensive governance document with an array of policies on how directors operate. That kind of transparency helps when elected directors must address controversial measures.

It tends to happen that way with trade associations — not many people pay attention until something contentious arises. Then everyone is under the microscope and often subject to criticism.

The oft-quoted phrase that nations get the government they deserve can also be ascribed to commodity association governance.

An extensive analysis of board associations published in 1999 by the American Society of Association Executives was prescient in its conclusion that governance models of the future would have to deal “with an increasingly complex, fast-paced environment.”

Emerging trade issues, changing regulatory burdens and growing environmental demands show that’s true.

Mark Boleat, a respected British executive who has written about board governance, recommends industry group boards number from 12 to 23.

If not enough people step forward, there is not enough people to do all the work, so some work won’t get done.

If not enough people vote, associations will be run by a small group of well-meaning people who will be open to criticism. A board containing appointed directors may well be subject to encumbering criticism as soon as an unpopular, yet perhaps necessary, decision is made.

Votes on directors take place most often by mail-in ballot and it is not difficult to find out where each person stands on key issues.

When it comes to the direction of grower associations, where check-off dollars are spent, and where decisions on lobby and support efforts are made, there is every opportunity for farmers to have their say through voting.

Producers must step up if they want their associations to be successful.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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