Membership, and the revenue that comes with it, are the lifeblood of any organization, but for the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) it’s more than just the money.
“It’s really what drives our credibility as an organization,” KAP’s general manager James Battershill told delegates attending KAP’s spring General Council meeting April 16. “KAP has always been well respected as an organization, not only in Manitoba but across Canada simply because we represent a large proportion of the actual farmers in this province. Without a strong membership base we start to lose that credibility. That is really where our strength and voice come from.”
And that’s why KAP has created a new position it hopes to fill soon — membership co-ordinator.
“There are at least 10,000 farmers in this province and our checkoff is only touching, at most, five thousand to six thousand of them,” Battershill said. “There are big gaps.”
KAP faces two problems with its checkoff. One is not all companies buying farmers’ production are collecting it, even though it’s mandatory by law. (The money is refundable, but farmers have to request it in writing.)
The other is if the money collected on farmers’ sales falls short of KAP’s annual $200 membership fee KAP must return all the money. Last year KAP returned about $100,000 because of that. If those farmers had made up the difference by sending a cheque, KAP would have earned an extra $360,000 approximately, Battershill said.
Last fiscal year 1,573 farmers’ contributions to KAP fell short of $200. KAP hired a person for a week to call farmers to see if they would top up their contribution, or leave it with KAP. Forty farmers topped up their membership, while 131 farmers left their money in, earning KAP an extra $13,000, Battershill said. Having someone work on membership full time should do even better, he added.
“I am extremely hopeful that we will bring somebody in who is exceptionally talented and who can speak farmers’ language and not only do a better job of engaging with our members encouraging participation in KAP events and activities… but willing to take ownership and control of the checkoff system that we have in place right now and try and see some growth there,” Battershill said.
As of March 31, KAP had 2,059 paid members — about the same as last year at this time. And it hopes to match 2014’s total membership of almost 4,000 when its fiscal year ends Nov. 30.
It’s no secret farms in Manitoba, like in the rest of North America, are getting bigger, but fewer in number. The number of farms is a moving target and varies with the definition of “farmer.” Manitoba had 19,054 farms, according to the 2006 census, averaging 1,000 acres in size, Statistics Canada says on its website.
The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s website says in 2014, 11,156 Manitoba farms grew canola.
Although KAP is Manitoba’s largest general farm organization and has a mandatory, but refundable checkoff, membership has been a perennial issue. It peaked at 7,022 in 1996 following the implementation of the current checkoff but there were many more farmers then too.
In 2009, then KAP president Ian Wishart wanted the Manitoba government to crack down on companies failing to collect KAP’s checkoff after reminders sent by the organization as well as the then minister of agriculture Rosann Wowchuk were ignored.
In 2013, former KAP president Doug Chorney threatened to complain to Manitoba’s ombudsman if the government didn’t start enforcing the checkoff legislation or enact a new checkoff law. But Chorney and KAP had second thoughts, believing a better strategy was to encourage company compliance with KAP’s checkoff.
“I would much rather bring them on board voluntarily and have them participating because the companies that we typically receive deductions from are quite good partners to have and to work with,” Battershill said April 16. “There are obviously legal options included in the act to take action, but certainly as we bring in the new membership co-ordinator position, it’s an area where they’ll be focusing in on as well, making sure that we’re engaging with members but also have a little more in-depth oversight of the checkoff system.”