Group says it is attracting younger members, particularly in Ontario and B.C., but Western Canada remains a challenge
The National Farmers Union says it remains popular with farmers despite the declining number of farms nationwide.
The organization claims it is attracting new members and younger farmers, but most of them are small-scale producers who sell their products directly to consumers in places like Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries in terms of new membership,” NFU president Katie Ward said during a break at the organization’s national convention, held last week in Winnipeg.
“In the face of a declining farm population, we’ve been holding pretty steady in our membership.”
The NFU relies primarily on membership fees to cover its costs, although in some provinces it receives stable funding from government.
It’s difficult to pin down how many farmers are NFU members because Ward said the organization doesn’t provide such information.
There were younger faces at the event, held in a hotel conference room in Winnipeg, and even a few babies. There was also the usual demographic seen at farm meetings in Canada — males in their mid-60s — but the percentage of women was higher than normal.
It was the 50th annual convention for the NFU, so the conference was partly a celebration and a look back at the history of the organization.
Cam Goff, who farms near Hanley, Sask., and has been an NFU member for more than 20 years, continues to support the group’s basic philosophy.
“Farmers are better off working together,” he said.
“You look at supply management or the (Canadian) Wheat Board … those things do, or did, make farmers’ lives better.”
The NFU does have room to grow, especially on the Prairies, Goff added.
“That’s where our numbers have fallen the most.”
Younger farmers are becoming members, but the majority are in Ontario and British Columbia.
“There are some organic, but there are also people who have the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). That is a successful model out east and on the West Coast because they have much larger (cities) where they can sell their product,” Goff said.
“(That) is much more difficult in Western Canada.”
It’s more challenging for the NFU to attract farmers because it focuses on policy. Most commodity groups, such as canola grower commissions, focus on research, agronomy and markets.
“Most farmers are interested in production … a new technology and a new way of doing something,” Goff said.
“Policy is a very difficult subject. It’s not a matter of going to a seminar and learning how a chemical works and deciding if you want to use it, or not.”
Policy may be complex, but one of the NFU’s policies is appealing to some younger farmers.
At the event, the NFU released a 98-page discussion paper, Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis, which is a thorough look at agriculture’s role in climate change and what Canadian farmers can do about greenhouse gas emissions.
“For farmers and all Canadians who care about our food system … the farm crisis and the climate crisis have many of the same causes and many of the same solutions,” the paper says.
In it, the NFU criticizes the common narrative in Canadian agriculture — that carbon sequestration is the solution to carbon pollution.
“We should not become confused by claims that we can somehow fix the climate crisis by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and ‘sequestering’ it in soils. This is false solution for many reasons.”
The NFU also has a controversial position, for a farm group, on the national carbon tax.
“We support a carbon levy,” Ward said.
“(And) we support that there are refunds … to farmers who are doing the right thing on their farms.”
The purpose of the climate change document is to start a discussion, but it doesn’t mean the NFU has all the answers. However, bold positions do encourage young people to join the NFU, Ward said.
“As many folks would know, as the National Farmers Union, we’re not afraid to take a stand…. Folks are liking what we’re talking about.”