Long-term voice in farm politics steps aside

Ron Bonnett, who got into farm politics in the 1980s, was Canadian Federation of Agriculture president for nine years

Next week’s Canadian Federation of Agriculture annual meeting will be Ron Bonnett’s last as president.

The cow-calf producer from Bruce Mines, Ont., is stepping down after nine years as the organization’s leader.

He leaves with mixed emotions, he said last week from his tractor while feeding cows.

Agriculture has gained more prominence within the federal government after the report from Dominic Barton identified it as a strong economic driver.

“There’s so much happening right now,” Bonnett said. “It’s not a bad time to be involved in farm leadership in that you know you’ve got some support to take a look at how we can really improve things.”

He will turn the reins over to one of two declared candidates: Norm Hall from Saskatchewan or Mary Robinson from Prince Edward Island.

Three people have also put their names in for first vice-president, the position Hall currently holds. They are Kevin Runnalls from the Canadian Seed Growers Association, Keith Currie from Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and Chris van den Heuvel from the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture.

There is no official role for the past-president but Bonnett said he will be happy to serve as a mentor to the new executive.

He first got involved in agricultural organizations as the founding president of his local Algoma federation in the 1980s, primarily to help young farmers like himself cope with high interest rates.

That led to serving as vice-president and president of OFA and sitting on the national council at CFA. He became second vice-president in 2007 before taking on the presidency.

Bonnett also served as the founding president of the World Farmers’ Organization, which grew from the ashes of the former International Federation of Agricultural Producers and currently represents 1.5 billion farmers from 54 countries.

“I see the value that organizations can bring to the farm community,” he said. “By working together we can actually make a difference in the lives of farmers and I think it’s more important now than it ever was just because there are so few people that are actively engaged in farming in Canada.”

Bonnett said he has seen, particularly over the last 15 years, farm organizations become more professional and credible.

“I remember when I started out you’d get a bunch of tractors on the road and that would solve the problem,” he said. “Now it’s more about how can we actually put some stuff in place, come up with ideas and solutions so it’s not just going in blind asking for something.”

He points to more partnerships and co-operation industry-wide and less confrontation.

“Are there times when we still have to thump our hands and fists on the table and stomp our feet a bit? Yeah, there’s still some of that, but it’s very different than what it was in the past,” he said.

Stepping down now allows an engaged board, including younger members, to step up, he said.

Bonnett leaves ag politics with concern that the general public has such little knowledge of modern agriculture and how public trust initiatives will counter that.

He intends to stay in the cattle and forage business. He and his wife, Cathy, currently feed about 120 cows and 100 backgrounders, sell some forage, and are considering growing more cash crops.

He said he likes his tractor time for thinking, and he’ll have more time for that once he completes his CFA duties Feb. 28.

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