“Farm groups have punched way over their weight for some time.”
– jack wilkinson
When Bert Hall raised the gavel on January 15, 1985 to call the first annual meeting of Keystone Agricultural Producers to order, he recalled looking out over the smartly dressed, articulate audience and thinking, “What an impressive group of young people.”
When Ian Wishart opened the 25th KAP annual meeting last week in the same downtown Winnipeg hotel, his observation was, “We’re older than we were.”
It’s true many KAP delegates in attendance January 28, 2009 were greyer around the temples than their predecessors 25 years earlier.
But that was one of the surprisingly few differences in an organization which has weathered some of the most tumultuous events in the history of western Canadian agriculture.
A quarter-century on, KAP remains Manitoba’s major voice for farmers. That’s no mean achievement for a farm movement often splintered by a plethora of groups with divergent views. The fact that KAP still survives is itself an accomplishment, given the fractious history of farm organizations in the province.
Giving farmers a voice through a united lobby was on the minds of organizers that day in 1985 when Hall acted as provisional chair at the initial KAP gathering.
It was a daunting task. The Manitoba Farm Bureau had folded the year before after imploding over the fierce debate about how to handle the loss of the Crow Rate. Previous farm organizations had also been wracked with dissension. The history of farm groups in Manitoba was one of “bitter and debilitating warfare,” according to a 1962 report of the Manitoba Commission on Farm Organizations.
An ad hoc committee chaired by Hall and Earl Geddes took their proposal for a new general farm organization to 25 meetings throughout the province in early 1984 to sound out farmers. The vast majority of the nearly 1,400 farmers who attended endorsed proposed concepts. General council representatives and 12 delegates at each local level were elected by April 1984. KAP was ready to roll.
Jack Penner, its first president, recalls a “very substantive difference” between KAP and the MFB in structure and approach. The MFB was viewed as a top-down organization dominated by a few powerful players, such as Manitoba Pool Elevators and United Grain Growers. Both pulled out over the Crow issue in 1982 and 1983 respectively, financially crippling the organization.
KAP was deliberately structured around automatic, but refundable memberships by individuals. Commodity group members were entitled to only one vote, the same as any other delegate. District meetings raised issues which were brought to the general council for debate.
Representing commodities as well as individuals has its complications. The fact that KAP went out of its way not to take a position on the Crow dissatisfied some. Others have complained KAP’s structure prevented it from taking a strong stance on other important issues, such as trade. That was one stated reason for the departure in 2008 of the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association.
An even broader concern is whether general agricultural organizations have the same influence today given the decline in the farm population and the proliferation of commodity groups with special interests.
“I don’t think we carry the same weight,” admitted Hall. “My experience with politicians is they look at the numbers. They want to know how many people you represent.”
But recent events raise doubts about whether the farm lobby is as effective as it used to be.
A prime example was Bill 17, the NDP government’s hog moratorium legislation. KAP, together with the Manitoba Pork Council and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, conducted a high-level campaign against the bill. Grassroots opposition mounted. Concerned farmers and rural residents lined up before legislative committees. “Kill Bill 17” billboards blossomed, full-page advertisements appeared in newspapers and callers jammed open-line shows. It had no effect. Bill 17 passed without amendment.
It was the first case in memory of government ignoring a farm protest rally.
But Ian Wishart says Bill 17 only reflected changing demographics which necessitate a shift in KAP’s lobbying strategy.
“Bill 17 was a lesson to us all,” said Wishart, who was returned to a second one-year term as president during last week’s meeting. “We’re a victim of the urban-rural gap and the nature of our lobbying has to change.”
Wishart said KAP’s lobbying efforts 25 years ago centred on nuts-and-bolts issues such as obtaining farm supplies. Those issues are still there but KAP today also focuses on matters of general public concern. Examples include human resources (e. g., workers’ compensation), nutrient management, food safety and the environment.
Earl Geddes, who followed Penner as president, said the need for a strong farmer voice hasn’t changed but the target audience is different.
“The target you’re lobbying may no longer be the politician or the bureaucrat. It may not be the minister or the deputy minister. It may be the leader of an environmental group,” said Geddes. “Go to where the power is.”
Jack Wilkinson, a farm lobby veteran, also doesn’t believe farm organizations’ days are done, even though farmers today make up only two per cent of Canada’s population.
“Numbers are not the issue,” said Wilkinson, a former president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and the International Federation of Agricultural Producers. “Farm groups have punched way over their weight for some time.” [email protected]