First published: February 12, 2005
A protest by farmers last week sent a powerful signal to politicians and the public. As more than 200 farmers, some from Northumberland County, gathered in Napanee to protest the onslaught of provincial and federal policies grinding down farmers, driving many into bankruptcy.
Nutrient management (another way of describing how farmers handle manure), greenbelt protection strategies, mad cow scares, low commodity prices, tobacco quotas, endangered species legislation, and a long list of other recent policies have frustrated farmers driving tractors along major highways, including roads in Northumberland, trying to raise public consciousness. A similar protest was held two weeks ago on Highway 401 near Tillsonburg.
The spark for the protest started with the Lanark Landowners Association, a group of farmers and others, including small businesses, with affiliates across Ontario, who began a campaign called the Rural Revolution, fighting to preserve private property rights and reduce legislation they believe restricts them from running their farms. The group’s actions have included food strikes at farmers’ markets, other blockades and running a slate of candidates for the board of directors of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Using in-the-face tactics, highly charged rhetoric and a confrontational approach, the group has the attention of the OFA and the government, along with public.
That was not always the case. The OFA initially ignored this group. President Ron Bonnett told CBC Ontario Morning after the 401 blockade that it did not participate in the event because it was not properly organized and was potentially dangerous. And while it shared some of the group’s frustrations, it was working on behalf of its members to resolve issues by working with the government.
But with the publicity Lanark received, it should be no surprise the OFA was quick to jump on the bandwagon for the second phase of the protest. And while OFA, commodity group leaders and Lanark leaders shared the stage in Napanee, there was some very strong emotions directed at the OFA, as frustrated farmers publicly lambasted officials. No doubt, every effort was being made to show solidarity, but that is the farthest thing from the truth.
The federation is in serious trouble, something the success of the Lanark group clearly demonstrates. And while the Lanark Landowners Association have been underestimated by the federation and Agriculture Minister Steve Peters, it is obvious the current system is dysfunctional.
The OFA is an institution, not a protest movement. Its bureaucratic structure, paid staff, large membership makes it an ideal ally for the government. Its formalized relationship provides the province with the perfect tool to legitimize its policies as the federation attempts to voice the concerns of its members. But the federation is far from being “the voice” of Ontario farmers.
With each commodity group representing a single sector of the agriculture industry, like chickens, eggs, cattle, dairy, apples, mushrooms and so on, finding unity is quite difficult. Then there are the numerous marketing organizations, which also participate actively in policy discussions and have representation on all kinds of organizations within the farming community.
It is an ideal situation for the provincial government. It can meet with all the groups, pitting one against the other. Yet, earlier this week, Peters told CBC radio, farmers need a single voice. Certainly, it makes the job of politicians easier to have one group to deal with, but the divide and conquer strategy also works in the ministry’s favour.
And so farmers’ frustration builds, leaving them to struggle just to remain viable in a world that does not seem to care about their plight. If Lanark has done one thing, it has raised the public’s awareness and embarrassed the minister into a meeting with them, but don’t expect any major policy announcements from all this effort. And, don’t expect to see too much more from the OFA because it got to share the spotlight long enough to save face.
Certainly, with 38,000 members and its regional staff, who work directly with farmers, it would appear the OFA is serving their interests. And with all the commodity groups, farmers should have the government on its knees. But that is not happening. Despite all these groups, farmers are stymied. Some, like those belonging to the Lanark group, feel isolated enough to break away and create their own voice to have their ideas heard.
Jacob Shultz, in his self-published book the Rise and Fall of Farm Organizations, said, “Ever since agriculture first began in Canada, farmers have from time to time become extremely discontented, which has resulted in them periodically joining together to form organization on the assumption that in union there is strength and success is attained in proportion to its unity of purpose.”
Nobody is suggesting the Lanark Landowners Association is right or better than the OFA or vice versa. It is not a single organization or a single voice that is needed, but a single purpose – a mantra that farmers, politicians and the public can easily understand and captures the imagination. The tactics and rhetoric of the Lanark group fails to achieve this important goal. And all the reports in the world and deputations in front of committees done by the OFA fails to stimulate any interest beyond bureaucratic circles.
For the most part farmers are neither radicals nor are they paper pushers. They are hardworking, dedicated families who grow our food. They deserve the ear of the government, concrete action from politicians and our support, no matter who tries to represent them.