One of the greatest issues you face as a farmer in the coming years is going to be ensuring you have a voice in the public realm.
Increasingly, there are people who have opinions about the way you farm and that’s not going to change. You can attempt to educate them about what you do and why, but that’s only going to go so far.
Eventually, you’ll run into the hidebound ideologues of the world who have already made up their mind and have little interest in absorbing new information and altering their world view.
At one point that wouldn’t have really been an issue, because farmers were a potent political force in their own right.
For much of Canadian history, we were a rural country of farmers, and up until the end of the Second World War, the majority of Canadians was rural residents with ties to the farm.
Back then populist political parties like the United Farmers held power at the provincial level and farm leaders were courted in the halls of power nationally.
Obviously these days it’s a much harder sell. According to the 2011 Canadian Census, there were just 293,925 farm operators in the country, out of a total population of 34.34 million. Are farmers themselves one of those “special interest groups” they like to complain about?
With those numbers it’s always going to be hard to move the needle, and doubly so if farmers aren’t willing to work together.
The May 19 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator featured an article expressing concern that the province’s general farm organization, the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), has a funding model that features a refundable checkoff, and some are calling for a move to an “opt-in” model rather than forcing producers to apply for the refund of their money.
On one level I suppose that argument does have some merit. After all it’s a free country and nobody should necessarily have the power to compel membership in any organization, and certainly not something like an industry association that’s hardly life or death.
But that’s not what this is about. Any farmer does in fact have the right to fill out a form, decline membership, and get their funds back. It might be a bit of a hassle, but it is well within the realm of the possible and there are farmers who do it every year.
The real issue the opt-out system addresses is that all-too-human failing of inertia.
There are a lot of things we all know are good for us. Getting more exercise, for example, or eating a more nutritionally balanced diet, or — having a unified voice for the agriculture industry.
Left to our own devices however, we’re just as likely to crack a beer, watch the game and forget to fill out that membership form and send in a cheque.
Why should you want to have that unified voice? Because in my opinion, KAP represents quite possibly the best bang you’re going to get for your buck.
It’s a relatively lean organization with a clearly defined mandate to represent the interests of the broad agriculture sector at the provincial level, with ties to national bodies that do the same.
It concentrates on concrete issues and doesn’t get tied up in politicking or get taken over as a branch plant of one or another political party — a trend that’s unfortunately pronounced at the national level.
To give just one example of how that dynamic has played out, Ian Wishart, who is currently a cabinet minister in the Pallister government, headed KAP for a considerable period during the previous government’s mandate.
During that time, KAP never said a bad word about the NDP and in fact worked with it to accomplish what it could under the reality of a predominantly urban governing party. It was, and is, a mature and clear-eyed attitude that should be emulated elsewhere.
KAP had made real progress on a number of files as a result, perhaps most notably on farmland education taxes. It convinced the Manitoba government to rebate 80 per cent of education tax on farmland, up to a maximum of $5,000 per farm, and continue to push for a fairer structural distribution of the education tax burden.
It also managed to get the government to take a second look at some legislation such as water stewardship and nudged the labour-friendly NDP government to accept that agriculture is a unique industry and deserved some special dispensation under workplace health and safety regulations.
It pioneered the alternative land use services (ALUS) concept, which has begun to catch on in jurisdictions across the country, and proposes compensating farmers for public goods like environmental services that are performed for the rest of society.
Every farmer will look at that record of achievement and make their own decision about whether or not KAP adds value, and I won’t tell you what to do, or insist you should be a KAP member.
I’ll only say that for $210 a year, it looks like a pretty good deal to an outsider.