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Editorial: Paperwork versus field work

Many readers may find themselves shouting out a hearty “heck, yeah” to this week’s release of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business annual survey of what farmers think of paperwork.

In a nutshell, not much, which isn’t surprising. After all, who among us does the happy dance at tax time or when Statistics Canada calls during supper?

But the comments CFIB members provided when responding to the annual survey are cause for reflection, not so much because of what they tell us about the regulatory burden on farmers, but rather farm operators’ state of mind.

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“Farmers are burnt out by excessive government regulations, confusing forms and bad customer service,” the CFIB says in the report to be released this week. The report “also found that one-third of agribusiness owners would not advise their children to start a business given the burden of government red tape.”

According to CFIB, 63 per cent of farmers say red tape delays are a drain on their business, compared to 56 per cent of small business owners generally.

Sixty-four per cent of survey respondents said red tape reduced their productivity, 86 per cent said they found it stressful, 63 per cent said it discouraged their business from growing and 35 per cent said they would discourage their children from starting a business.

Among the comments from farmer respondents are these:

“The StatsCan surveys are ridiculous and always come at our busiest time of year,” said one member.

“Regulatory burden is crazy… (We) have to jump through hurdles to get answers to some of our questions. This impacts our business by higher stress levels and financial burdens,” said another.

“It takes more time to deal with all the regulations than it takes to operate the farm anymore. Makes me wonder why anyone would want to farm,” an Ontario farmer said.

“Many of the programs ask for the same information over and over again which they already have on file. It gets frustrating and futile,” said another.

If it’s any consolation, this year’s survey results are modestly lower across the board from 2013.

It must be noted that while the CFIB blames regulatory burden solely on government, much of the regulatory oversight in the farm business today is imposed by industry. Farmers routinely sign contracts with seed and input suppliers, which tie their hands operationally and which subject them to routine audits and followup.

Participation in those technology use contracts and government programs is voluntary, so farmers can choose not to sign on the dotted line. The fact that so many of them participate implies they see value there for their businesses.

To the extent that farmers are required to report, apply or otherwise deal with government bureaucracy at higher proportions than other businesses, it could be because they benefit from business risk-sharing arrangements that are not available to other businesses.

Manitoba farmers on average received just under $30,000 from program payments in 2013 and $43,000 in 2012. Over a five-year period between 2007 and 2011, those payments averaged $25,000, which was close to half of the average net operating income.

The red tape involved may be frustrating, but there are few activities in business — at least legal ones — that can generate that kind of return for a few hours of paperwork. And what’s “red tape” for some is “due diligence” for others — farmers don’t want those programs threatened by accusations that it’s lacking.

We don’t doubt that farmers feel frazzled at times by bureaucratic bungling, when it occurs. But perhaps a bigger source of stress is the increasing diversity of decisions involved with day-to-day operations. Farmers can’t or won’t outsource some of those management functions.

This point was noted in a recent Conference Board of Canada analysis of farm businesses in Canada. “Managerial specialization is key to business growth, but its development is often hindered by a farm operator’s unwillingness or inability to delegate and manage,” the report said, noting one factor is a lack of qualified farm labour.

“Both of these issues speak to the need for farm managers, themselves, to undergo more training in management and leadership — and to implement the workplace standards and practices that will help attract a new generation of smart, ambitious, and enterprising Canadians to farming.”

The CFIB survey respondents cited above appear to fall into the category of operators who are still trying to do it all. We recognize it’s not easy to find good help and that many farm businesses lack the financial capacity to outsource.

But on the farm these days, the paperwork is just as important to the bottom line as the field work. It’s doubtful farmers would want that to change.

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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