A western Manitoba farmer says Keystone Agricultural Producers is wrong to put the onus on farmers to opt out of membership and the group’s refundable checkoff.
Shelley Mitchell, who farms with her husband Byron Bellow between Baldur and Cypress River says KAP needs to revisit its funding model.
“This has been a flawed program from the very beginning,” Mitchell said in an interview May 4. “This should be an opt-in program, not an opt out.”
For years KAP has collected annual membership dues from farmer sales through a provincially legislated checkoff of 0.75 of one per cent, which is refundable upon request.
Farmers have to sell $28,000 worth of product before KAP collects its $210.
Farmers can also avoid the checkoff by submitting a membership opt-out form to KAP before the start of its fiscal year Dec. 1.
Around 1,000 farmers who support KAP, but want to avoid the checkoff, pay their dues directly.
Mitchell and Bellow had opted out of KAP for three years, but the opt-out period, which is now one year, recently expired. Unbeknownst to Mitchell and Bellow, two different elevator companies deducted KAP fees from their grain cheques earlier this year.
“The problem was we weren’t even aware that now a person has to opt out annually,” she said.
Mitchell said it caught other farmers by surprise too. Grain companies are frustrated because they have to deal with annoyed farmers, she said, adding KAP should have notified farmers about the change.
A KAP official agreed that would be desirable, but mailing every producer would be costly.
KAP could ask elevators to put up posters in the fall reminding farmers they can opt out, Mitchell said. If KAP doesn’t, Mitchell said she might.
“I am willing to start my own defence against it,” she said. “I can start my own group — Farmers Against KAP. Maybe it is time that farmers got together and we start petitions and change things.”
Another option is to change things from the inside, KAP president Dan Mazier said in an interview from his farm near Justice May 12.
“You could attend a district meeting and try to get it changed if you want, versus just complaining about it,” he said.
Mazier also took exception to Mitchell’s charge that KAP’s checkoff was tantamount to theft. Even if a farmer doesn’t notice the KAP checkoff, he or she will get a receipt and then can ask for a refund.
But Mitchell said that’s like Walmart deducting money for a charitable donation when customers pay and then giving them the option to ask for a refund later.
“This is a democratic country so if I don’t want to belong to something I don’t have to,” she said. “There are a lot of small farmers like ourselves who don’t want to give up $200.
“They just take it for granted that we should just give it to them.”
KAP’s checkoff isn’t perfect, Mazier said. It was created before the Internet and cellphones, and at a time when there were more elevators and farmers usually delivered to just one or two.
KAP sends a list of opted-out farmers, and those who have contributed the maximum $210 fee, to elevator companies monthly. But between the updates, additional checkoff money can be deducted. And it can take up to two months to remit the money because KAP can’t repay the farmer until it gets the money from the elevator.
KAP often bemoaned its own checkoff system in the past, partly because not all grain companies collect it, even though required to by law. Changes also require legislation.
“With the government talking about red tape reduction we might be able to streamline the mechanics of the checkoff system,” Mazier said. “But we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater either. It is a very cumbersome checkoff system to say the least. But at least we have it.”
A year ago, KAP hired a membership co-ordinator to handle checkoff issues and also make the case with farmers individually why they shouldn’t opt out of KAP.
A KAP official said memberships so far this fiscal year are up slightly from the same period a year ago at 3,065. KAP expects total membership will be around 4,500. Around 150 farmers have opted out.
Mazier said he hasn’t fielded a single complaint call personally, including from Mitchell, although she did complain to KAP’s office. Mazier said he’s getting mostly positive feedback about what KAP does for farmers.
KAP is the most transparent and democratic farm organization in Canada, Mazier said. A local board represents members in 12 districts. District representatives meet four times a year bringing forward issues.
“It’s not that board (of directors) saying, ‘this is how it’s working,’ it is the grassroots saying, ‘here is what you need to do.’”
Saving farmers money
KAP has accomplished a lot for farmers, Mazier said, including convincing the Manitoba government to rebate 80 per cent of education tax on farmland, up to $5,000 a year.
Mazier is especially proud of KAP’s role in helping shape the Manitoba government’s workplace safety rules for farms.
“We were able to explain to government how agriculture is different and we were able to adjust a lot of things for agriculture specifically,” he said.
KAP offers an array of member benefits including group health and dental plans.
“The cell (phone) benefit more than pays for a (KAP) membership right there,” Mazier said.
KAP members are also eligible for discounts of $2,000 to $13,000 on Dodge and Chrysler vehicles. About a dozen people who traditionally have opted out of KAP signed up this year because they planned to buy a Dodge truck or wanted the cellphone deal, a KAP official said.