Editorial: National voices in agriculture sectors should be a priority

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A national voice for each of the major agriculture sectors is important, but increasingly splinters have appeared in many areas, including grains, dairy and sheep.

This has happened before, and unfortunately it happens during challenging times in the sector, when a national voice is most needed.

Financial, trade and policy challenges have appeared more in the past year than they have in a decade. Crop prices are sticking low and trade has buffeted dairy, grains and the meat sector.

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The Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) recently left the Grain Growers of Canada (GGC), after having joined the organization late in 2018. That means a national break in grains policy groups.

The Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency left the Canadian Sheep Federation (CSF) a few years ago, along with lamb producers from Alberta. Quebec sheep farmers left the national organization earlier. An upstart group, the Ontario Lamb Producers Caucus, formed in November and has been accepted as the Ontario representative to the CSF. There’s a split in sheep.

A few years ago Dairy Farmers of Ontario withdrew its millions of dollars in marketing funds from Dairy Farmers of Canada, resulting in a significant restructuring of the national organization. DFO continues to work with DFC and has members on its board, and in lobbying.

The largest national organization for farmers, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has significant gaps in its membership in important farmer organizations who have not joined, or who have left.

National and provincial organizations in a country as diverse in agriculture production as Canada will have rifts because the worlds in which these organizations operate are so different. Corn is grown across the country, but the large majority is in Ontario and Quebec. There are soybeans grown in significant volumes in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, but they can’t compete with the prominence of canola and wheat in the west.

None of this is new, but I’d hoped that the closer ties that have been formed over the past decade of better farming returns would survive the challenges of poorer times. It doesn’t look like that’s the case. When there’s a need to prioritize different commodities for approach to government, the East-West splits are laid bare.

Such is the case in the grains world, where trade challenges have meant artificial influences in the canola and soybean markets. The canola case was simple — some trumped-up quality concerns from China due to the Canadian arrest of a Chinese executive. Soybeans are more complex, with American policies leading to fewer exports to China and then American subsidies kicked in to make Canadian soybeans less competitive. At the same time the declining pig herd in China has reduced global soybean demand.

I understand the policy differences behind the splits in most of the commodities, but I expect there is more to it, as hinted by the GFO statements about its withdrawal from the GGC. The GFO statement said there were personality conflicts as well. I expect there is more of that than we hear. I get that if you can’t work with someone, then it’s time someone moves along, but individual personality conflicts have little place when you represent large numbers of people.

There’s another common driver of organizations leaving national groups and that’s money. Provincial groups provide significant money to fund national organizations and it hurts when you see that money being used to represent areas that don’t affect your region. There’s usually some willingness to be flexible, but when there’s a burning issue, or an issue that’s costing members financially, then the tipping point can be reached quickly.

What do organizations, and farmers, lose when they don’t have national representation?

One of the driving forces I heard from sheep farmers behind the Ontario Lamb Producers Caucus is that not being part of a national organization meant the loss of connection and influence on national programs.

There’s also the loss of lobbying power, although GFO has significant lobbying capacity itself. But I’ve heard from governments for years that they want to hear from one voice. I haven’t heard that call as much in the past five years, because farmers have been speaking with fewer and clearer voices. There’s a risk of further alienating government when that voice is split among more groups.

Maintaining national farm organizations in a country as large and diverse as Canada isn’t easy, but it needs to be a priority to create coherent government and consumer narratives. They don’t care if farmers don’t get along, they just see multiple messages and that seeds confusion.

About the author

Editor

John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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