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Opinion: What’s the future of farm groups?

What is the future of farm organizations? How can they continue to make an impact? What do they need to change?

Those were the weighty topics the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario asked guest speaker Rene Van Acker to tackle during its annual meeting and leadership summit in late March.

Van Acker is dean of the Ontario Agriculture College at the University of Guelph and will be familiar to many readers in Manitoba from his time as an agriculture professor there.

In answering those questions, he did not shy away from pointing out the challenges that agricultural organizations are facing, but he also suggested that there is tremendous opportunity to strengthen the voice of agriculture.

One of the major challenges facing agriculture, as we can see from Stats Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture, is that the number of farmers is declining, and the majority is older. Encouragingly, 2016 saw an increase in the percentage of farmers under the age of 35 and in the percentage of female farm operators. Overall, however, the farming population is shrinking, and smaller numbers could result in a political voice that is pushed to the fringes.

Because the number of farmers is shrinking, the organizations that represent them can also have limited resources. Van Acker suggested that agricultural organizations need to seek partnerships with non-ag organizations. There are many organizations that share farmers’ concern for robust food policy, farmland preservation, soil conservation and rural economic opportunity, to name just a few examples. Urban community organizations, conservation authorities, municipalities, and environmental groups that are willing to partner with agricultural organizations can play a huge role in supporting the needs — and amplifying the voice — of agriculture.

Van Acker also suggested that agriculture can and must be positioned as a sector for growth, innovation, and inclusion. The 2017 Barton Report, which offered recommendations to federal government on increasing economic growth in Canada, listed agriculture and agri-food as a prime area for economic growth and job creation.

The report caught many in the industry by surprise. Agriculture hasn’t kept company with economic engines like manufacturing and energy for a long time. Van Acker suggested many politicians are uncomfortable about it because they know relatively little about agriculture. Ag organizations, therefore, can play a vital role by reminding our politicians and bureaucrats of the message in the Barton Report. When agriculture is recognized as an economic driver and job creator, our political leaders have good reason to support it.

Van Acker concluded that we are witnessing a unique moment in Canada. Agriculture has been recognized as a potential key economic driver for the country. And more and more, society is interested in knowing about the source of their food and how to protect our nation’s food-growing resources. The question for agricultural organizations is what we will make of these opportunities.

Marie Versteeg is manager of executive board and committees for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO Commentary represents the opinions of the writer.

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