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NFU is a voice farmers need — if only they would listen

After nearly 50 years of fighting for farmers, the National Famers Union voice is showing its age

Late last month, the predictable mélange of National Farmers Union members gathered for the organization’s 45th annual meeting, where the big item on the agenda was updating the organization’s brand with a new logo and fresh tag line.

It was clear that some members believed the dated look and feel of the pan-Canadian group was keeping new, younger members at bay, and yet no one seemed particularly enthusiastic about leading a charge towards the 21st century.

President Jan Slomp described himself as “indifferent” to a logo change, while youth president Alex Fletcher said he “wasn’t really passionate about branding work.”

In fact, the greatest enthusiasm seemed to come from the members who rushed to the microphones to rail against the idea of change.

The common theme was don’t fix what’s not broken.

The problem is, that the National Farmers Union is broken.

Its membership is declining, fresh blood is scarce and you don’t have to attend a budget session to know finances are tight — the old margarine container with “coffee donations” scrawled on it is a good tip-off.

And the organization’s problems go far beyond a dated logo, although the tired green maple leaf may prove emblematic of its larger issues. The NFU has failed to engage youth or the broader public on social media, its relationship with mainstream media is openly distrustful, and thus far, it has shunned the idea of embracing urban supporters, even though they could provide strength in numbers and much-needed membership dollars.

The bottom line is, that with rare exception, the NFU is no longer meaningfully connecting with Canadians, farmers or otherwise, and its message is going unheard.

And that is the real travesty, because the National Farmers Union has a message that Canadians desperately need to hear. Time and time again the union is not only right about the effects of policy change on producers, it is practically clairvoyant.

The NFU is thorough in its economic assessments of the realities farmers face, taking into account all facets of both government policy and consumer trends. Its analysis looks at the big picture, and it does it without losing sight of the details.

While the priorities of other producer organizations can be clouded by the competing interests of corporate members, the National Farmers Union has remained a pure voice for the interests of the farmers on issues ranging from Bill C-18 and CETA, to the assets of the Canadian Wheat Board, grain transportation and GMO alfalfa to name a few.

Yet, often the only validation the organization gains is the ability to say, “we told you so.”

Slomp said the union is unfairly painted as being socialist or communist by those who don’t like the message — governments and corporations alike — in an effort to discredit it.

Undoubtedly that’s true. But the National Farmers Union’s worst enemy may be the National Farmers Union. Listening to members speak, the public relations person inside me cringed with each person who compared the Prime Minister to Adolph Hitler, the government to the Nazis, or who brought up the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Reminiscing about the CCF or wearing tie-dye might be considered charming, if not dated, but straying into political minefields outside of agriculture is a gift for those who oppose you — as is clinging to the outmoded traditions of union culture.

Farmers do need to work together to accomplish change and build their livelihoods, but singing Solidarity Forever in 2014 is not understood or embraced by potential members the NFU needs if it is to stay relevant.

Clearly the National Farmers Union wants to protect its history of progressive thought and honour its roots, but the best way to do that isn’t by clinging to old symbols and songs, it’s by being progressive and embracing the changes that keep it strong.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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