Strahl faces crucial test with farmers

First published: February 22, 2006

There are key moments in political life where a single action can define the future success or failure as a government. On Tuesday, newly appointed Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl will face a major test of his fledgling career as farmers from across Ontario travel to Ottawa to express their continuing frustration. The protest comes on the eve of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s annual meeting, which begins on Feb. 27 until March 2.

Many farmers across Ontario, some of them in Northumberland, are making weighty decisions regarding the future of their operations. After years of poor returns and lack of enough government support to make a living, the options are dwindling. The rally in Ottawa is meant to be a signal to politicians, especially the Conservatives that something must be done. While Ontario farmers were suffering, their American counterparts had some of the best returns. From 2003 to 2005, Realized Farm Net Income in Ontario was the worst in history, according to the OFA.

As part of their Farms Feed Cities campaign, farmers are asking for immediate investment to all farmers to provide a satisfactory standard of living. They want this extended for two more years. The OFA is also asking for more flexibility in the delivery of assistance to farmers and the preservation of supply management programs.

These may seem like old complaints delivered many times by farmers. But for those who know, the suffering facing some farmers is enormous. In one case recently reported to the OFA, a farmer received a $2,000 cheque as part of a farm safety net payment to cover several hundred acres of lost crops.

Northumberland Farmers are active in drawing attention to their plight. Only last week, 12 farmers went to meet with Ontario Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky, and later with Strahl to drive their message home. Both politicians expressed their concern. Strahl has pledged to address the issue of unfair subsidies paid by other countries to farmers and Dombrowksy pledged to provide assistance with an announcement about financial aid, but there were no details.

Strahl has already shown good faith by announcing $755 million to grain and oilseed producers, an election promise made by the Conservatives during the recent federal election. It was a swift and decisive move, yet, as Strahl will quickly learn, this is only the beginning. The complexity of the problems facing agriculture cannot be simply solved. And while money is a crucial factor, it is the deep structural problems in Canadian agriculture that need to be fixed.

However, farmers may be their own worst enemy. The Ontario Landowners Association (formerly the Lanark Landowners Association) is pushing its agenda just as hard as the OFA. It held a protest near Tillsonburg on Jan. 21, stopping traffic on Highway 401, a technique that successfully draws media attention. It will also hold a massive protest at Queen’s Park on March 9.

This organization’s concerns are quiet different and focus less on farm income and more on restrictive laws that they feel stop them from making a living.

The OFA calls its protest the “Unified Voice” movement. While the National Farmers Union, Ontario branch, is encouraging its members to participate in the protest this week, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario appears to be doing nothing. It is questionable, at time, if farmers are unified. All must be activists, as much as they are farmers. When the agriculture community fails to fully mobilize, the politicians have an easier time walking away.

But there is more that can be done.

For those of us who do not farm, we must join in this chorus of concern. And there are things we can do locally. Port Hope council was recently asked to provide some property tax relief to county farmers. A report to council suggested it would cost $8,000 in lost interest. Farm properties contribute nearly half a million dollars to the tax coffers. The town should move swiftly to grant the request.

Other rural municipalities and the county should do the same.

In the meantime, residents should push newly elected Northumberland MP Rick Norlock to roll up his sleeves and fight hard for farmers. He pledged to do so when he was on the election trail. There is no time to waste. He should be standing with his constituents on Parliament Hill Tuesday as a show of solidarity.

And we should be doing the same. Write an email, make a phone call, write a letter, but do something. Otherwise, we may see fewer tractors in the field come this spring. The jury will remain out on Strahl until we see more than words. He has only a few weeks to act in a manner that show Canadians he is serious about being truly different.

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