Farmers urged to consider forming one, national association

Manitoba producer Danny Penner says there would be less duplication and better use of checkoff dollars

A Manitoba farmer mounting an effort to create one big commodity association says a splintered voice is not only expensive, it could cost farmers control of their industry.

As the number of commodity organizations collecting checkoffs continues to grow, a 5,000-acre Manitoban farmer can be paying around $20,000 a year in checkoffs, said Danny Penner, a Halbstadt-area farmer and former president the Manitoba Pulse Growers Association. He says checkoff dollars would be better spent on a larger, more efficient national commodity association.

“If we continue on the road we’re on, people are going to see themselves putting too much money into small-picture thinking and they’re going to vote with their dollars and they’re going to take more and more money out,” said Penner.

“If we are moving forward and the people spending a lot of money see there is a vision and there is a movement and something is going to come of this, and the dollars they spend are going to have a national or international focus, I think they’ll more likely leave their money in.”

Penner, whose father Jack was the first president elected to lead Keystone Agricultural Producers, crafted his proposals after consulting some like-minded farmers, and then emailed them last week to western Canadian commodity groups, the federal and Prairie agriculture ministers, and several reporters.

“We are writing to request your support for the creation of a new producer-driven national farm organization that would work to solidify marketing systems for grains, oilseeds, pulses and special crops,” the document states.

No matter where farmers stood on the Canadian Wheat Board, its mandate change “left a void” the document says. To fill it, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are creating wheat and barley associations. And there are already winter cereal, oat, pulse and canola associations in those provinces.

Farmers would be better served by a single national, or at least to start with, western farmer-run, commodity associations, Penner said. Each would send representatives to sit on the board of a single, national farm association, which would also elect farmers, he said.

“Then the minister of agriculture could say, ‘I’m going to Winnipeg and I’m going to meet with these guys and I can cover everything in two days rather than travelling all across Canada trying to get fragmented views from each individual organization,’” Penner said.

Subcommittees could work on local issues, but the focus would be on the big picture and using economies of scale to deliver more bang for the buck, Penner said.

Several national commodity groups already exist, including the Canada Grains Council and Canola Council of Canada. Meanwhile, work is underway to set up the Cereals Council of Canada. But these groups are dominated by “industry” representatives, Penner said.

“We’re looking at something that’s going to be farmer run,” he said. “Industry has a place, but if we allow the life science companies to lead us… ultimately I don’t think that’s in the best interests of farmers and consumers alike.”

The Grain Growers of Canada, an umbrella organization for grain commodity groups, could play a role in setting up a new single, national association because it is farmer run, Penner said.

“But they would have to take a really large step forward in how they are managed and how they would see themselves growing into this,” he said.

Penner said the Canadian Grain Commission could also play a role in getting the association going. Having a national farmer-run association could also take ownership of crop varieties developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada after it pulls out of research, Penner said. If farmers don’t organize, those crops will end up owned by private firms, he said.

“I’m not calling that the end of the world, but it doesn’t give us any control over what we’re going to be dealing with in 10, 15 or 20 years,” Penner said.

Penner’s document doesn’t spell everything out and that’s deliberate, he said. It’s meant to be thought provoking, not prescriptive.

So far feedback has been positive, Penner said.

“The responses I’d say are 90 per cent on side and 10 per cent skepticism,” he said.

“It may not happen from this initiative, but it will happen,” Penner predicted during an interview March 7. “It has to happen and if it doesn’t happen we’re going to be in trouble because we’re going to lose control of our own industry.”

See Page 5 for the full text of Penner’s pitch to fellow farmers.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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