Unified voice, not $1 billion, solves farmers dilemma

First published: April 09, 2005

The $1 billion aid package announced by the federal government last week will be a short-term solution to the current farm crisis, but once again demonstrates the weakness on both sides to find a long-term solution. Nothing less than the viability of agriculture in Canada is at stake.
With nearly every sector of the agriculture industry on the verge of collapse, the Liberals had no choice, but to throw Canadian farmers a life ring. Oil and grain seed farmers are facing the lowest market prices in 25 years. Beef farmers, who were on the verge of being able to export beef to the United States, are now facing further set backs. Pork producers are facing punitive action from the Americans, too. The list is far too long to itemize here, but rest assured there are very few farmers who are not under incredible duress as spring arrives and the planting season is about to begin.

Certainly, the aid package is necessary and desperately needed. No doubt, the provincial government will also be kicking in some aid. Unfortunately, this is a band-aid on a wound that needs stitches. In fact, it needs major surgery. Like most serious problems facing governments today, there is no simple solution and very few people are interested in dealing with complex problems. We all know the list: health care, education, immigration, municipal infrastructure and so on and so forth. Serious reform is far too difficult and the parties involve are so entrenched it appears to be almost impossible.

Farmers are caught in a terrible schizophrenia.

For many, the family farm is a central symbol in agriculture. The family-owned and operated business remains an iconic emblem of agriculture. Many farmers believe the government should support farmers, regardless of the cost.

But the reality is much different.

Modern governments focus on reducing spending, freezing taxes and less intervention. Taxpayers don’t want to pay anymore. Farmers are forced to perform as any small business in a Darwinian economy where the strong survive and the weak fall by the wayside.

The financial pressures, heavy competition and migration of many families off the farm has led to the rise of agri-businesses consisting of larger farms, hired non-family labour, greater use of technology, maximized efficiency and production as central values for the production of cheap food for Canadians. The central symbol of Canadian farmers, the family farm, is under siege.

Yet, the disarray among farmers themselves compounds this situation. For decades, farmers have held allegiances to various commodity groups, dairy, eggs, beef, potatoes, poultry, etc. These associations and agencies have lobbied government on behalf of those farmers, giving the government an opportunity to play one producers’ group off another. What is even worse, many of these group are territorial, meaning wheat farmers in Ontario rarely work with wheat farmers from out west.

But the public cares little and the politicians feel no pressure to do anything other than throw money at the problem. Most Canadians could not care less whether a bag of milk comes from Wisconsin or Ontario and meat comes from Brazil or Alberta. For some less sympathetic consumers, the $1 billion aid package is little more than throwing taxpayers money away. Others say it will do no good since the farmers will be crying for more next year, anyway.

It is going to take a major transformation, if Canadian farmers are going to save them and us.

Last month, two farmers, Teo DeJong and Mark DeJong, brought forward an exciting initiative to the Northumberland Federation of Agriculture calling for a Unified Voice Movement demanding the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and the National Farmers Union join forces. While the movement did not start here, it is gathering momentum across the province.

The time is ripe for such a movement. Never before has the problems facing farmers been so clear. This goes beyond family farming or agri-business; beyond commodities or interest groups; beyond the different provinces. The very sustainability of agriculture is in the balance.

With a unified voice, farmers could once again project the strength needed to grab the attention of politicians and shatter the public’s apathy. With a single call both sides could tackle the tangled web of financial aid, subsidies and support programs to simplify them and bring stability to food production and revenues for farmers, putting an end years of frustration, anger and alienation.

By focusing on the threat to the viability of farming in Canada, it will simplify the debate for the public and taxpayers, since farmers will speak with one voice, instead of many.

The traditional icons of farming can no longer capture the current reality. Farmers must put aside the rural ideology of the past, the divisive fights that divide them and back a unified voice for all farmers.