Take advantage of the the good times while they last: Bonnett

With farm incomes better than they’ve been in a long time, farmers need to take advantage of market opportunities without stretching themselves too thinly, says Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

That means doing everything from telling Canadians about the importance of the agri-food industry to the national economy to making sure the bilateral free trade deals the federal government is busy negotiating don’t work to the disadvantage of producers, he told the CFA annual meeting.

“We need a clear vision of where we want to go, both in terms of developing exports and serving our local markets. Are we getting policies that will benefit all farmers?”

He urged western farmers not to abandon the Canadian Wheat Board just because they’re angry with the way the government terminated its wheat and barley monopoly. “If farmers support the CWB, then it will have a strong future,” Bonnett said.

By CFA standards, it was a low-key conference. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz missed it in favour of a trade meeting in Washington and the government didn’t bother to send a substitute speaker.

Past annual meetings grappled with falling incomes and serious challenges such as BSE and swine flu. This time, delegates focused on the theme of connecting farmers with markets and other ways to grow the business.

For Bonnett, it’s clearly preferable to head a national farm group in good times. But farmers shouldn’t become cocky, he cautioned. There are plenty of unresolved issues such as the National Food Strategy and Growing Forward 2 as well as the European and Pacific trade talks.

National conservation plan

One new area for farmers to ride herd on will be the federal proposal to create a National Conservation Plan, he said. “CFA has been involved in initial meetings on it and we need to determine how farmers will fit into it and whether they will be compensated for costs in complying with the program.”

At the same time, the organization supports federal moves to cut bureaucratic red tape and to streamline cross-border trade with the United States. Both could aid the bottom line of farmers through reduced costs and increased sales.

He also said that while many farm and food groups are using the social media such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with consumers, “We’re not getting out a consistent message about what farmers do.”

Former Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Bette-Jean Crews said the CFA needs the government and opposition parties to keep supporting the development of a National Food Strategy as they did during last year’s election campaign. “We don’t want them to try to take ownership of it,” Crews said.

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