OFA urges farm data requester be named

A Freedom of Information Act request targets anyone with a Farm Business Registration number

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Members of the three General Farm Organizations in Ontario have been encouraged to tell the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to turn down a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request aimed at Ontario’s farmers.

The request looks for names of individuals and businesses holding Farm Business Registration (FBR) numbers, a well as the numbers themselves.

Why it matters: There’s concern that the release of identifying data could result in nuisance contact with farmers or fraud attempts.

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“If possible, I would like their FBR number as well, but at the very least, I just need the names of the businesses that are registered,” reads the request letter, which seeks information from March 1, 2019 to Feb. 28, 2020.

The National Farmers Union – Ontario gives three reasons for OMAFRA to reject the request including:

  • Potentially enabling animal activists to target livestock operations,
  • The comingling of business and personal information in many farm businesses, and
  • The potential for someone use a FBR number to fraudulently qualify for farm tax rates or farm vehicle license plates.

Jason Bent, director of Policy Research for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), says it’s possible the request was not made by an organization or individual with an animal rights agenda. It could have been made by a person or organization with which Ontario’s farmers share values. If that was known, then it wouldn’t be as much of a threat, he says.

But, “we’re having to assume the worst.”

Based on feedback to the OFA office, Bent says farmers are strong opposed.

Concern about enabling animal rights activism is the most commonly-cited reason, Bent said. But there are also concerns about scammers using the information for identity theft or other similar crimes.

The OFA has sent a letter to its members that they’re encouraged to sign and send to OMAFRA’s FOI office.

The OFA wants farmers to specifically say “I do not consent and consider the release of this personal information to be an invasion of personal privacy, contrary to the stated purpose of FIPPA (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act).”

Bent expects the requester could combine the limited data in a FBR account with other data.

FIPPA dictates that provincial ministries must disclose information related to the distribution of government funding, but it also outlines reasons why certain information can be exempt.

“Under the legislation . . . some information can be withheld, like when the release of that information may impact third parties,” says OMAFRA Media Relations Strategist Christa Roettele. In this case, the potentially impacted third parties are those whose names are attached to the FBR business entities.

According to Roettele, those third parties must, under the legislation, be consulted about the potential impact of the information’s release. And that’s why OMAFRA reached out to farm organizations about its plans to sample the opinion of 400-500 farm business registration holders. The deadline to respond is July 17.

Roettele added that “anyone who has provided comments to OMAFRA via the [email protected] email or who was contacted directly by OMAFRA in a consultation letter will be notified of the decision. OMAFRA is still determining how to communicate its decision more broadly.”

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, federal Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, and who is tied to animal rights organizations, says he had not heard about the Freedom of Information request to OMAFRA. He ws recently part of an online forum that included discussion about a “Defund Animal Agriculture” campaign.

He said there was no discussion about the request during the recent online forum, and he did not know who submitted the request.

He did, though, stress in an email there are reasons why the identities of FBR holders should be released publicly.

“The name of any recipient of a federal or provincial subsidy, grant, or benefit should be publicly disclosed as a basic matter of transparency for taxpayers,” the Liberal MP asserted. “More, it would be good to see a breakdown of how agricultural subsidies/benefits are allocated, and whether that allocation is consistent with our food, health, and climate policies.”

It would make sense, then that a similar request would be made to Agricorp, which is the funding agency for some government programs. But according to Agricorp’s Stephanie Charest, no similar request has been submitted.

Roettele told Farmtario the identity of the requester is considered personal information under the FOI legislation. But the ministry is being urged by OFA either to release the requester’s identity, or to extend the deadline for input from farmers.

“I’m hopeful,” Bent said, when asked about the likelihood the requester’s identity will be revealed. He says OMAFRA will be in contact with the requester, “and it’s quite possible they’ll consent to have (their identity disclosed) immediately.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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