Participation in farmer commissions is important

Western Canada’s crop sector has a dizzying array of commissions collecting producer levies for research and market development.

Unfortunately, a lot of producers pay only passing attention to how the commissions operate and how the funding is used.

It’s election season for commissions. Nominations are open for some, while for others a slate of candidates is already determined.

Six candidates are running for two open positions on Sask Pulse Growers, and seven candidates are vying for three open positions on the new Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission.

This may look healthy for democracy, but if history is any guide, fewer than 10 percent of eligible producers will bother voting with the mail-in ballots. Some organizations are going to electronic voting, but that is unlikely to increase the participation rate.

Meanwhile, some of the smaller commissions will scramble to find enough producers willing to serve on the board. Anyone nominated is likely to be acclaimed.

Producers flock to Saskatoon’s Crop Production Show in January and many attend the information meetings at CropSphere and Crop Production Week, but the business meetings for the various commissions are not a big draw.

In Manitoba, smaller commissions co-operate in an event called CropConnect each February as a venue to hold annual meetings. As in the other provinces, most producers attend for the information sessions and avoid the business meetings.

You could take that as a sign that producers are generally pleased, but in reality a lot of producers simply don’t pay attention. They’re busy running their own farms and don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the research priorities of the commissions.

A few do become concerned about the check-off dollars collected and regularly apply for refunds. In most cases, these producers either disagree with the concept of checkoffs or are simply opportunists recouping some money. Few look into how the funds are being used or attend an annual meeting before pulling their money.

Producers who were upset with the individuals elected to the first board of Sask Wheat applied for refunds and were later surprised to learn that they couldn’t vote or run for director positions in this year’s election. If you opt out of the system, you can no longer participate.

Lentil prices at 40 cents a pound are nearly $900 a tonne. A one percent checkoff is $9 a tonne. You’d think producers would want to show up at the annual meeting to hear how the funds are being used.

Academics and outsiders sometimes look at the large number of commissions and proclaim that the system would be much more efficient with one big overriding check-off organization similar to how it’s done in Australia.

Unfortunately, Canadian legislation makes it difficult to develop commodity checkoffs that cross provincial boundaries.

As well, smaller commissions feel their research and market development priorities would be lost if they were part of a much larger entity.

What we have works quite well, but it could be even better if more producers took an active interest.

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