Bad weather and chronic problems with a membership checkoff have combined to reduce the number of Keystone Agricultural Producers members to their lowest level ever.
KAP ended 2010 with 4,178 paid members, down from 4,402 in 2009, the association’s annual meeting in Winnipeg learned.
KAP now has fewer members than at any time in its 27-year history. At one point, its memberships numbered over 6,000.
Part of the reason for the 2010 decline was excessively wet weather, especially in the Interlake region, said Yvonne Rideout, KAP general manager. Some flooded farmers had no grain to deliver to country elevators, where a portion of the sale value is automatically applied toward a KAP membership.
But the main reason for the decline is that some grain companies still fail to administer the checkoff, as they are required by law to do, Rideout said.
She said she was “very frustrated” that the checkoff is not working as it should.
Lack of compliance by elevators in deducting money for KAP memberships has been a constant problem for the checkoff since it came into force over 20 years ago.
The checkoff is compulsory. Every farmer is supposed to pay the $150-a-year fee, plus GST, although the money can be refunded later on request.
Many farmers pay directly or through their marketing boards, if they belong to one.
For crop producers, the Agricultural Producers Organization Funding Act requires elevators to deduct a small percentage from the value of each shipment delivered, up to the $150 limit. Some grain companies comply dutifully, some irregularly and some not at all, said Rideout.
As a result, only a fraction of Manitoba farmers who should belong to KAP actually do. Rideout estimated the organization could have 11,000 or more members if the checkoff were applied across the board.
Doug Chorney, KAP president, was quick to say some grain companies are faithful about collecting checkoff money and sending it on.
But KAP has repeatedly raised the issue with non-compliant companies, the government and a provincial certification agency, only to get nowhere, Chorney said.
He said the certification agency, which designates KAP as the representative farm organization in Manitoba, has repeatedly sent letters to grain companies telling them to follow the law.
The agency has the legal authority to examine companies’ books to see if they are complying. If they are not, the agency can order them to remit the amount they should have collected over the previous six months. They can also be fined.
But that action has never been taken, Chorney said.
KAP wants the government to amend the act to make membership in a general farm organization in Manitoba mandatory. The organization also wants the cap on checkoff collections removed to make it automatic on all grain sales, even if the amount collected goes over the limit, Chorney said.
But the province is noncommittal on opening up the act. Chorney said he doubted KAP’s proposed amendments will appear on the order paper during the spring legislative session.
Another option is for KAP to complain officially to the provincial ombudsman that the government is not applying the law. But when KAP raised the idea with Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers and his deputy minister, neither one liked it, Chorney said.
He said KAP will continue to lobby for legislative changes to make the checkoff work as intended.
KAP may also suggest political parties include mandatory farm organization membership in their policy platforms for the Oct. 4, 2011 provincial election.
Chorney noted Quebec and Ontario require compulsory membership in a farm group, so there’s a precedent for Manitoba to follow.
He was also hopeful KAP membership numbers will bounce back in 2011. Chorney noted the number of members dropped during the wet year of 2005 but recovered the following year. [email protected]