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Commodifying the farm voice

For some reason during this day and age, it seems that the things that make the most common sense are the most unlikely to happen.

Take for example, Danny Penner’s pitch for farm commodity groups to unify under one research, market promotion and policy umbrella (page 5 of last week’s issue). It makes perfect sense, as is often the case with big ideas coming from farmers who still get their boots muddy once in a while.

Penner, who farms in southeastern Manitoba, says the current system in which individual commodity groups collect voluntary checkoffs to support their research, development and administration, is not only expensive, it is making it harder for farmers to keep their collective eye on some key targets that are moving in the wrong direction — chiefly their ability to influence policy and maintain unrestricted access to new germplasm.

Right now, farmers are paying checkoffs on canola, pulse crops, sunflowers, corn, oats, winter cereals and soon, all cereals. They may also be paying checkoffs to support livestock organizations as well.

We won’t even go into the ironies of the current situation. Dwelling on the fact that up until about a generation ago the united farm voice was a force to be reckoned with in Canadian society just makes us feel old.

Suffice to say we couldn’t agree more with statements such as these in Penner’s letter to fellow farmers:

“Only by working together, combining resources and leveraging individual successes will this initiative generate the input and direction from key producers such as yourselves that it needs to take shape.

“Producers today are facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a great need to create a new national organization to speak with one voice. The reality is there is no such thing as a ‘wheat farmer’ or a ‘flax farmer,’ etc. Producers across the country may as well think like neighbours since their interests in the marketplaces are essentially identical.”

In our view, the only real beneficiaries of the present system are governments who like making announcements as they dole out funds on a commodity-by-commodity basis for files all the commissions are working on — research, developing the Canadian “brand,” market access, food safety and traceability.

Every time the government makes an “announcement,” of course the recipient organization pumps out a press release applauding the government’s generosity, farm newspapers write stories, and on it goes. Governments like announcing things so much they sometimes do it two or three times for the same amount of money, as was the case with the $90,000 the federal government “announced” for the Canadian Soybean Council in Winnipeg last week. In fact, the money was allocated nearly a year ago and has already been spent.

Likewise, we agree with Penner’s concern that farmers should balk at turning control of the future of crop-varietal development over to the life science companies.

This is not to suggest these companies don’t do good work. But under that scenario, the odds of openly accessible varieties coming forward that have genetic resistance to a disease such as fusarium head blight are slim to none. Future pest control would more likely be tied to seed, fungicides, seed treatments, herbicides and pesticides that must be purchased annually.

Yet that is exactly what will happen with the ongoing process of commodifying the farm voice.

Here’s how things are going to unfold, unless farmers get their act together.

As the number of commodity hands dipping into farmers’ pockets for annual checkoffs continues to rise, the sheer cost of maintaining the commodity silos becomes exorbitant. By Penner’s math it’s already upwards of $20,000 annually for a mixed-crop farmer working 5,000 acres.

Some of those checkoff dollars go for research to be sure. But significant funds are also flowing into those commodity-specific administrations, which direct the commodity-specific communications staff to pump out those press releases applauding government largesse. It’s also notable that it is exceedingly rare to receive a press release from a commodity group that says anything that could be remotely construed as criticism of the present government.

Not surprisingly, farmers’ engagement with issues appears to be at an all-time low. Future leaders are hard to find. And as the financial cost of maintaining these commission silos mounts, more farmers will exercise their right to withdraw.

The federal government is pulling out of varietal research. If farmers do too, the only ones left in the room will be private companies, whose investment comes with strings attached.

Penner’s pitch makes sense. But are farmers ready to step up and be counted?

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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