Increased checkoff withdrawals and reduced farmer control were top concerns during a discussion at Ag Days Jan. 16 on merging five Manitoba crop commodity groups.
“I worry that it will be extremely easy (if there’s one group instead of five) for a farmer to pick up the phone and get all of his checkoffs back in one quick phone call,” Starbuck farmer Ed Rempel said during a question and comment period following a presentation on the proposed merger of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers, Manitoba Flax Growers, the National Sunflower Association of Canada and Manitoba Corn Growers and Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers.
“Even more worrisome is that there are major western Canadian farm accounting firms that are now suggesting that farmers request their checkoffs back, which I consider treasonous.”
Rempel said about eight per cent of farmers request a checkoff refund from Prairie canola associations.
Rempel said he thought if refund requests exceed 13 per cent the Manitoba government would decertify the association.
- Read more: Commodity groups release merger report
Turns out the threshold is higher. According to regulations under the Agricultural Producers’ Organization Funding Act, if checkoff refunds from a commodity group within any year exceed 30 per cent of the farmers, and accounts for at least 30 per cent of the checkoff collected, a referendum must be held to determine whether the organization should continue to be designated and therefore eligible for a checkoff.
If a majority of farmers vote against continuing the designation, the Manitoba Farm Products Marketing Council shall recommend to the minister of agriculture that the designation be revoked, the regulations state.
However, another farmer said by not merging, checkoff refund requests could increase.
“I look at the younger generation coming along right now,” the farmer said. “They are looking at their operations as a line item — expenses. I think that a larger group may bring some betterment possibly — some better research, better staffing. Hopefully if we’re doing our jobs it will be status quo. But we still run a real risk of withdrawals doing what we’re doing today.”
Lowe Farm farmer Butch Harder said he worries merging the five organizations will create a big workload for farmer-elected directors who will rely increasingly on staff to run the organization.
“I can just see this being an industry takeover of a research organization,” Harder said. “If industry takes it over, they look after themselves not the farmers.”
Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association chair Fred Greig said he doesn’t expect to spend more on hiring staff.
“I guess from my standpoint what we see is that staff might be prepping me as a director so I don’t have to spend quite as much time going through those reports,” Greig replied.
Later when asked if grain companies or processors had suggested the merger, Greig said: “No, absolutely not. This is not a new idea. Producers over a number of years have had the suggestion that there should be more co-operation. I know from Manitoba Wheat and Barley’s standpoint we tried to work with Alberta and Saskatchewan and we had the idea maybe we should be working with Manitoba as well.”
MacGregor farmer Curtis Sims asked since no one person can be an expert in all crops, how directors of a merged board will show leadership for particular crops. Will the board consist of ‘generalists,’ or will subcommittees be established for specific crops?
“We are still in the middle of that,” said Rob Hannam of Synthesis Agri-Food Network, which has been hired to assist in the merger discussions. “At this point we’re thinking generalists.”
When Hannam asked what Sims would suggest, Sims said each crop needs a leader.
The idea to merge the associations evolved over the past few years. Four of the five groups are headquartered in a Carman office owned by the Corn Growers and had already been collaborating.
Earlier in the meeting, Hannam said the groups believe by merging they can serve farmers more efficiently, making their checkoff dollars go further.
An amalgamation proposal released in December says if they merge the new organization would focus on the same things the five currently do — research, agronomy and market development.
The organization would be governed by a farmer board of 15 directors, elected at large, representing all farmers growing crops currently represented by the five organizations.
The merger has been discussed at four public meetings, including Ag Days.
Farmers can also talk about the idea when the associations hold their annual meetings during CropConnect in February.
A final vote will be held at each of the five organizations’ annual meetings in February 2019, or at a special meeting of members, the report says.
“The goal, subject to approval by the Manitoba Farm Products Marketing Council (MFPMC) and Manitoba Agriculture, is that the regulation designating the new organization as the representative organization of producers of the named crops will be effective on August 1, 2019,” the report says.