Butch Harder and Jim Pallister seem the most unlikely of allies.
Ordinarily the pair, who farm at Lowe Farm and Portage la Prairie, respectively, find themselves on the opposite sides of many policy issues.
But now they find themselves expressing similar concerns about the proposal to amalgamate five Manitoba farm commodity associations — Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers, Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers, Manitoba Corn Growers, Manitoba Flax Growers and National Sunflower Association of Canada — into a single entity.
Active in farm politics for years, Harder and Pallister, aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and did recently at CropConnect in Winnipeg when the merger proposal was discussed.
Harder, a strong Canadian Wheat Board supporter, advocates for government regulations to give farmers more market power, while Pallister worked much of his life to end the board’s monopoly and generally supports deregulation.
But when it comes to a merger, which is expected to be voted on by farmers at next year’s annual meetings, Harder and Pallister both said they worry it could undermine farmer control and let smaller crops fall through the cracks.
“This thing crosses all so-called farm political lines,” Harder said during the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association’s (MWBGA) annual meeting Feb. 15. “I’ve talked to people like Jim Pallister, who I haven’t talked to in five years, or even longer, and vice versa.”
Attendees laughed and then laughed more when MWBGA chair Fred Greig replied: “And maybe that’s the best benefit of all — that you are talking to Jim Pallister.”
The laughing stopped and was followed by applause when Pallister retorted: “We’re real farmers. That’s the deal.”
Other farmers also raised concerns about merging and about as many expressed support.
The five associations are now governed by a total of 41 farmer-directors. A merged association will have 15. Extra work would be delegated to staff.
“I see losing total control of these organizations,” Harder said during the Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers annual meeting Feb. 14.
“I think we should tread very careful on this. I frankly don’t see this being a good idea. It’s a dilution of farm power as far as I am concerned.”
Association directors need a passion and that’s easier when focused on one crop, Pallister said.
“Convince me. You’ve got a year to talk about this. When it comes time for a vote… you need a full day to debate this amongst the membership I would say. That’s absolutely vital.”
At the wheat and barley meeting Pallister picked up on Greig’s comment about having trouble finishing a board meeting on time. That will get harder with more crops, Pallister suggested, adding creating subcommittees or forming a federation as alternative.
“Can we not make sure we explore appropriate balance that maintains the strengths that we have now, and the optimums of what we have now, so we don’t lose anything in the amalgamation?” Pallister asked.
The steering committee has discussed several models, Greig said. A federation is more complex for managing staff and administration, he said, adding, the committee is still open to suggestions.
Shoal Lake farmer Bill Nicholson warned a merger would undermine farmer input and control.
Lockport farmer Craig Riese admitted to being conflicted. Merging could result in more efficient use of farmers’ checkoff money, he said, but perhaps more collaboration could do the same.
Boissevain farmer Ben Martens supports collaboration and even merging, but said there might be better models in the interim. A merger could see more farmers asking for their crop checkoff, used to run the various organizations and pay for research, refunded. If half of the 30 per cent of farmers who “aren’t crazy about” merging opt out “then we’ve lost big time,” he said.
“I am very excited to see this happening,” Halbstadt farmer Danny Penner told the Pulse & Soybean Growers annual meeting.
Several years ago Penner urged farmers to merge to make better use of farmers’ money and mitigate checkoff fatigue.
Kyle Friesen, a former chair of the group, said a lot of the concerns can be addressed.
“I think this amalgamation is a great way to improve utilization of our resources… a better way to deliver dollars from the government, be more efficient, get some of that intercrop research done that I think is lacking right now,” he said.
“Let’s get involved and really make this thing work.”
Most other supporters who spoke for merging are also directors of one of the five associations.
Pulse growers’ chair Jason Voth, said smaller crops will do better in a bigger organization.
“If there’s not enough money to pay for a phone and a building and a photocopier there’s not a lot of money left over for research so how is that benefiting your crop? If edible beans was on its own would it be doing research… ?” he said.
In separate interviews Mark McDonald and Eric Fridfinnson, presidents of the National Sunflower Association of Canada and Manitoba Flax Growers Association, respectively, said they had faith the farmers elected to the merged association will assure smaller crops don’t get short shrift.
Both also said merging makes sense for their small-acreage crops. But Fridfinnson added that was the weakest of the arguments. A larger organization would offer more to all farmers because of economies of scale, he said.
Manitoba flax lost $29,509 in 2017, partly because of lower flax production.
Last year Manitoba flax set two records, Fridfinnson said. One was for the fewest acres at around 60,000 and the other was for the highest average province-wide yield at 30 bushels an acre.
In just three years flax plantings went from 120,000 to 60,000 acres.
“It makes it pretty hard to come up with five-year funding commitments for research,” Fridfinnson said. “Whereas if you have a larger organization that has more crops you can provide more stable funding.”
While the flax board endorses the merger, Fridfinnson said the final decision rests with members.
The Manitoba Corn Growers Association board also supports merging, president Myron Krahn told reporters.
“Our board has probably done a 180 (degree turn),” he said.
“We probably all were against it initially going back three or four years, but our board is 100 per cent in favour. We all think this is going to benefit producers. We’re all producers ourselves too so we definitely have vested interest in this.”
A merger plan was released in December, followed by four regional meetings to get farmer feedback. Krahn said while some concerns were raised, reaction was “by and large positive.”
Several people, Pulse & Soybean chair Voth included, said a merger seems not only necessary but inevitable.
“Farm sizes are getting bigger, which means the pool of farmers is getting smaller,” he said. “As farms get bigger guys are tied up more.
“It just feels that we’re headed there anyway.”
The steering committee is still seeking input. It will prepare a budget, organizational chart and bylaws for the proposed new association. The information will be shared at public meetings this fall. And if all goes well farmers will vote on merging when the five associations hold their annual meetings next February.
If more time is needed it will be taken, Greig said.
A merger would also have to be approved by the Manitoba Food Products Marketing Council.
The merger process formally began two years ago, when the five groups, which were already co-operating, plus the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and Manitoba Oat Growers Association, agreed to explore the idea.
Canola and oats opted out, but the rest signed a memorandum of understanding that took effect May 1, 2017 to investigate merging further.
The five associations say they will renew the MOU this spring. Currently all the associations except for the Manitoba Flax Growers Association already share an office, owned by the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, in Carman.
Manitoba wheat and barley, pulse and soybeans, sunflowers and corn already share an office owned by the Corn Growers in Carman, Man.
The Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers, the newest of the association, and the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, also share a general manager.