Lowe Farm seed grower Wilf (Butch) Harder used one of his characteristic quick-witted comebacks last week in answer to a friend’s observation that he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a National Farmers Union member.
“Just because you’re a socialist doesn’t mean you have to be poor,” quipped Harder, as he celebrated the farm organization’s 50th anniversary meeting last week in Winnipeg.
The Harder family, which grows grains and oilseeds on 4,900 acres in Manitoba’s Red River Valley, has belonged to the NFU for three generations. Wilf was there with his father for the founding convention held in Winnipeg in 1969 and he served on the board as a youth representative.
Both he and his father were already members of the Manitoba Farmers Union prior to the foundation of the NFU. In 2011, son Dean carried on the tradition, taking up an active role.
A well-known voice in farm policy organizations, including many years as a Manitoba Pool Elevators delegate and one of the first farmer-directors of the Canadian Wheat Board, Wilf agrees that many think of the ‘typical’ NFU farmers as being small and poor.
He is neither and he points out that many of his fellow NFUers aren’t either, not that that matters to an organization dedicated to improving the lot of farmers both big and small globally.
“Farmers’ union people understand the free enterprise system and that’s why some of them are very successful producers,” he said. “They know how the system works… and because of that some of them are excellent marketers. They know how to make a dollar.”
Dean Harder also says the NFU has been unfairly maligned as being too “leftist.”
“But that’s old hat,” he said in a separate interview. “I’m seeing farmers who think we need better policies on our farms.
“When you have a drought or a flood all of a sudden you want help. You need some policy that gives you help.”
More people need to break out of their tribes, whether in party politics or farm groups, he said. Going with the flow results in things like cuts to AgriStability that rendered the program ineffective, according to the younger Harder.
“People just nodded their heads and said ‘OK.’ If something is wrong, it’s wrong.”
The NFU is well known for its extensive research, and according to Alberta farmer and former president Cory Olikka, its policy analysis “is almost clairvoyant.”
For example, the NFU predicted that among the dramatic changes set in motion by killing the Crow Rate would be the Canadian Wheat Board’s demise.
“A lot of times in the farmers’ union we can say ‘we told you so,’” Wilf Harder said.
“In many respects the farmers’ union was ahead of its time,” he said.
The NFU’s first president, the late Roy Atkinson, went to China in 1970 and returned advocating trade between the two countries. According to Harder, that’s when the NFU was labelled a communist organization.
“I find it extremely humorous because today when the government wants to send a trade mission all of the farm leaders are standing in line to go to China,” he said. “Now it’s not communism, it’s trade.”
The NFU has accomplished much, according to a summary of its history. Its predecessors — the provincial farmers’ unions — pushed governments to bring in cash advance loans on stored crops in the 1950s, followed by crop insurance.
The NFU promoted supply management, provincial farmland protection legislation and was active in farm gate defences to delay or even overturn farm foreclosures in the 1980s.
It claims credit for blocking the introduction of the use of bovine growth hormone in Canadian dairy cows.
The NFU also says it helped stop the continental barley market, which took barley destined for the North American market out of the wheat board for 40 days in 1993 until the courts restored the board’s marketing authority.
Another longtime NFU member Ken Sigurdson, who farms 2,000 acres with his son Brendan at Swan River, told the meeting the NFU helped keep the Crow and the wheat board longer than otherwise would have been the case.
“A lot was accomplished,” he said. “It wasn’t a loss to fight the issue and be on the right side of the issue.”
Stewart Wells, who farms 3,500 certified organic acres near Swift Current, Sask. agrees. He served as NFU vice-president of operations and was president from 2001 to 2009.
“The farmers’ union fought tooth and nail,” Wells said in an interview Nov. 26.
“The NFU has not wavered in its fight for the betterment of farm families and farming conditions and local communities.”
Throughout its history, the organization has resolutely stood in solidarity with railway and port workers during strikes for a better deal from their grain industry employers.
Act of Parliament
During a panel discussion, Wells noted the NFU was created by an act of Parliament in 1970, establishing the organization’s mandate, to promote the attainment of farmers’ economic and social goals through the development of markets, cutting production costs and promoting legislation and other government action for the benefit of farmers.
Its own act isn’t the only thing that sets the NFU apart. From the start it strived for gender equality, and to involve youth. To that end it created a women’s president and vice-president and the same for its youth wing, says Katie Ward, the NFU’s current president.
“We’re really proud of our structure and our democratic process that underpins how we operate,” Ward said.
Another characteristic that sets the organization apart is its work with La Via Campesina, an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small- and medium-size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, Indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers.
“It’s the social justice framework that NFU has on its agricultural actions that I find fits my interests the best,” Dianne Dowling, an NFU member from the Kingston, Ont. area, told the meeting.
A big tent
Having that broad perspective means sometimes even the most loyal members of the NFU won’t agree with everything the organization says or does.
Wilf Harder’s experience with numerous farm organizations has taught him that you don’t have to agree with every policy. For example, he thinks the NFU is sometimes too anti-big corporation.
NFU leaders often worry about growing farm debt, but fail to mention growing farm assets, he said.
“I said once at a farmers’ union meeting, ‘I get a headache if I don’t have debt.’”
The NFU has a track record of spotting policies early that can eventually hurt farmers, Harder said. For example, it predicted plant breeders’ rights would result in farmers losing their right to save seed for free, which is being proposed now by Canada’s seed industry.
“All I can say is we were right,” he said.
As for other farm groups, most fail to be “suspicious enough,” he said.
The NFU’s membership numbers are “steady” despite fewer farmers in total.
In 2009 the NFU had 6,600 members thanks in part to Ontario’s farm checkoff system that compels farmers to pick an organization to support.
Several NFU members said that policy continues to bolster NFU membership and finances today.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place right now,” Ward said, adding the NFU has hired a new executive director, Marla Shaw, who starts work in January. Part of her job is to increase membership.
Combating climate change and the farm income crisis (see next week’s paper for more) and fighting to protect farmers’ ability to plant saved seed without an additional royalty are among the NFU’s current battles.
The next 50 years won’t be easy for farmers or the NFU, Ward said.
“Climate change is an issue we will face every day of our lives,” she said, adding farmers can play a role in mitigating it.
“Farming now looks incredibly different than it looked 50 years ago. And it’s going to look incredibly different again in another 50 years. We have a lot of struggles ahead of us. Things aren’t easy on the farm, but if we work hard together I think we can make the future a little bit brighter and do some great things.”
Wilf and Dean Harder are optimistic about farming and the NFU.
“I guess if I wasn’t an optimist I wouldn’t be farming,” the elder Harder said, adding it has been tougher the last two years.
As for the NFU, it has to pick its battles, he said.
The NFU passed a resolution Nov. 26 to “organize a high-level pressure campaign to demand that the single-desk selling of wheat and barley be immediately restored in Canada.”
Several NFU members spoke against it, not because they don’t support single-desk selling, but because the NFU doesn’t have the resources for such a campaign.
“I wasn’t there (when the resolution was being debated),” Harder said. “Lucky thing I didn’t have to take a position on it.”