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Opinion: Choice of voice needed for Manitoba

Provincial Minister of Agriculture Ralph Eichler plans to improve the efficiency of the checkoff system that currently funds Keystone Agriculture Producers, reducing red tape.

Agriculture is a complex industry with many issues and different viewpoints to consider. A system like we have now supports just one organization’s perspectives, limits the public debate and reduces the range of input farmers can offer. Manitoba would benefit from having a system that instead allows farmers to choose which general farm organization (GFO) to support with their checkoff dollars.

Manitoba has two: The National Farmers Union Region 5 (Manitoba) (NFU-MB) since 1969 and Keystone Agriculture Producers (KAP) since 1984. Currently KAP is the group legislated to receive checkoff funds because the Agriculture Producers Funding Act of Manitoba states: “Only one qualified organization may be certified…”

NFU-MB, funded by voluntary farmer memberships, is an important voice advocating for Manitoba farmers and the viability of family farming in Canada. Like many farmers, we believe that more choice will lead to better results when it comes to policy analysis, making recommendations and representing farmers.

We are calling upon Minister Eichler to not only review the efficiency of the current model, but to also consider other options so that farmers are offered a choice of voice as to which organization they will support with their checkoff dollars.

We agree Manitoba’s current model is cumbersome and inefficient. We also see that it is not free of corporate influence. It is not designed to represent the diversity of Manitoba’s farmers as it is limited to those who deliver grain to elevators. There are many farmers who do not but are affected by agriculture policies. In addition, the elevators and farmers have to deal with a lot of paperwork.

All these inefficiencies detract from the important business of representing farmers. Yet the biggest cost is the current funding model’s lack of support for a diversity of farm voices. There is no choice of voice.

In contrast, other provinces recognize farmer diversity under their stable funding legislation, allowing farmers to choose among two or more GFOs through a farm registration model.

The Ontario model collects membership fees from farmers and distributes the funds to the GFOs according to the farmer’s choice, all at a very low cost. In September 2013, Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food examined their model. It concluded that offering stable funding to multiple GFOs was necessary because it offers “the democratic freedom of farmers to choose the voice that best represents their interests,” and stated that the “practice increases transparency, improves the quality of policy decisions and contributes to public acceptance of the decisions that are implemented.”

The NFU-MB urges Manitoba to follow the example of Ontario in funding a minimum of two GFOs. In public discussions of policy, it is very important to have a diversity of voices participate.

Should this extend to agriculture in Manitoba as well?

Ian Robson farms near Deleau, Man. and is the NFU Region 5 (Manitoba) regional co-ordinator. Dean Harder farms near Lowe Farm, Man. Robson and Harder both serve on the NFU national board. For more information about the NFU, see nfu.ca.

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