Are Canadian farmers becoming more European?

Canada’s farmers are getting more and more regulated. Do we have to become just like Europe?

In the mid-1970s, when David Rolfe made the decision to sell up in rural England and set up shop in rural Manitoba as one of Canada’s newest immigrant farmers, burdensome regulations were certainly part of the equation.

David Rolfe

David Rolfe
photo: Supplied

It would have been one thing if they had been sensible regulations well-grounded in reasonable desires, which is how most of the regulations actually started. But over time they had morphed into something more intrusive, forcing farmers to seek outside approval for virtually every facet of the day-to-day operation of their farms.

Whether it was erecting a small outbuilding or simply putting up a bit of fence, everything needed to be approved by the local government council, Rolfe said. The writing was on the wall, he felt. It was time to move.

Upon arrival in rural western Manitoba, Rolfe seemed in an ideal operating environment, with plenty of elbow room, few busybody non-farming neighbours, and municipal governments largely run by and for farmers.

Happy with his choice, Rolfe settled into a near-40-year career that included a stint in farm leadership as the head of that province’s general farm organization, the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).

Today, he doubts a British farmer making the same move today would find as big a difference, or be as happy with the move.

“We’re not quite in the same situation yet, but we’re certainly quite a ways down that road,” Rolfe says.

Piece by piece

Barry Senft

Barry Senft
photo: Grain Farmers of Ontario

Rolfe isn’t the only observer who has noticed that times have changed. Barry Senft is the CEO of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, and is also a familiar face to western Canadian farmers where he was well known in the grain industry as a member of the Sask Wheat Pool management team, later chief commissioner of the Canadian Grain Commission, and then executive director of the Canadian International Grains Institute before taking his current post in Ontario.

From this unique vantage point, he’s seen a rise in recent years in the challenges and scrutiny agriculture faces, driven in no small part by the increasingly urban nature of Canada. With just two per cent or so of the population involved in primary agriculture, urban voters are increasingly in the driver’s seat.

In Ontario, that’s translated into legislation like its 2008 “cosmetic pesticide” ban that many fear will prove the thin edge of the wedge and result in on-farm bans and onerous regulations. More recently, growers in that province have been fighting a move to severely curtail use of neonicotinoid seed treatments due to fears the crop protectants are hurting bee populations.

“During that debate we began to hear some concerning things — things like the provincial environment minister, when being criticized for not taking this ban further, saying ‘You don’t eat the elephant all in one bite,’” Senft says.

With other agricultural issues on the horizon, the sector decided it was time to take action, forming Farm Action Now, a self-described task force aimed at giving agriculture a unified voice in the discussion to ensure better balance. The key, Senft says, is to make sure policy makers understand that the proportion of the population farming may be small, but they punch above their weight when it comes to generating important economic activity that benefits everyone.

“It’s a dollars and cents issue,” Senft says. “Any provincial economy is sensitive enough right now that I don’t think anyone is eager to make changes that would harm themselves.”

In many ways, Ontario is the leader in this move towards agriculture speaking more loudly in this debate, and if you pause to think about it, it’s obvious why. Approximately 13.6 million people call the province home, and it also has a robust agriculture industry, making it a place where farmers and non-farmers are likely to come into contact. It’s also a place where farmers don’t enjoy much political clout, making the need to participate in the discussion more acute.

Now, others are starting to pay attention and transplant the approach elsewhere. Adele Buettner is CEO of Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan, an industry group including farmer organizations, government, input companies and food processors. It’s modeled after a similar organization of the same name in Ontario, with a similar mandate.

“It’s a group that’s made up of farm organizations and those involved in food processing in Saskatchewan, from gate to plate,” Buettner says. “It’s the first organization of its type in Saskatchewan. Our interest is in having a conversation with consumers.”

To the uninitiated, Saskatchewan might seem like a strange place for the agriculture industry to feel marginalized in policy discussions. After all, it’s still widely seen as the breadbasket of the country, and agriculture generates an enormous proportion of its economy. But even here in the heartland the demographics have been remorseless.

Back in the mid-1970s when European farmers like Rolfe were starting to look across the pond for greener fields, Saskatchewan had a pretty even split — 55 per cent of its population was urban and 45 per cent rural, according to StatsCan.

By the 2011 census, that balance had become unbalanced, with 70 per cent of the province’s populaiton living in the cities and only 30 per cent in the rural areas — and that raw data doesn’t account for the fact that most rural residents aren’t involved in agriculture anymore.

It’s a challenging picture, but one Buettner insists isn’t impossible. She points out that last spring the organization was promoting farm and barn tours and got hundreds of respondents who came and saw the day-to-day activities of agricultural operations.

“That’s what we really want to do — show people the face of modern agriculture,” Buettner says.

Others, however, are a bit more skeptical of these sorts of efforts. Michael Gertler is a rural sociologist based at the University of Saskatchewan, and he says one problem with these efforts is they typically don’t show the true picture of what happens. He says instead they tend to paint a sanitized picture that’s really more about public relations than honest dialogue.

“What they present is what I call the Disney-fied version of agriculture,” Gertler says. “It’s a type of agriculture where every animal is a happy animal and cruelty or environmental degradation never happen.”

Another problem Gertler sees with current efforts to engage the public is that few appear to be genuinely driven by farmers. Many are instead efforts on the part of the overall agriculture industry and are co-opted by others rather than addressing the issues from a farmer standpoint.

“This leads to a situation where you have farmers basically squandering an enormous amount of goodwill they’ve built up over generations, and they’re doing it in someone else’s interest,” Gertler says.

Says Gertler: “I think farmers really need to stop and think about this and realize that when it comes to, say, some of these large agricultural companies, their interests and the interests of these companies are not necessarily the same.”

There’s also going to be the issue of defining what’s a farm, and determining how farms are to be regulated in modern times. These days you have, for example, extremely large-scale livestock operations that are run by hired managers and staffed by hired hands, while being owned either by corporate interests or shareholders.

“Does it really make sense to regulate something like that in the same way you would regulate the old family farm of yore, where most of the labour came from within the family unit?” Gertler asks. “Over the years, agriculture has been exempted from a lot of things because of this, and now we have very large companies that want this sweetheart deal to continue under the guise that they’re farms.”

Senft says he’s heard this argument before, but doesn’t think it fully understands how intertwined the interests of the various players in the agriculture sector are. It’s a reality, he says, that is part of the cosmetic pesticide ban.

“I think we’ve seen that those who feared it was the thin edge of the wedge were right,” Senft says. “It started with one province, now it’s in three, and we’re beginning to see a lot more talk about regulating agricultural pesticides.”

Science or politics?

Rolfe says he doesn’t know what the future holds, but his time at the helm of KAP does give him some idea what the correct path might be.

The industry can’t afford to just ignore non-farmer concerns or come to be seen as obstructionist, because urban voters do have more clout. But neither can it afford to become a convenient scapegoat.

“Probably the most important word is going to be ‘science,’” Rolfe says. “The key there is to make sure the science is sound and that we’re making the right decisions, based on the right information.”

Rolfe also says the examples of places where agriculture took on issues proactively — commodity quality assurance programs, for example — have shown another potential road forward. They’ve allowed producers to address consumer concerns in a practical way, rather than having terms dictated to them.

“While they do add to more paperwork at the farm level, they provide assurance to the consumer — and the producer — that food is produced to a certain standard of safety,” Rolfe says.

Sociologist Gertler said he generally agrees these are both potential solutions, but cautions that for it to work, the industry must take a hard look in the mirror and ask if there really are places where farmers could improve.

“We talk about self-referential bubbles, well I sometimes say agriculture is stuck in a self-reverential bubble,” Gertler says. “They need to honestly look at the situation, and realize that, in some cases, there really might be a better way.”

Gertler goes on to add this must also be a two-way street, where the rest of society better understands what we’re asking of farmers. For example, he says Europe is often held up as a regulatory nightmare, but at least farmers there are somewhat compensated for their trouble.

“There they talk about multi-functionality and they pay farmers for those environmental services,” Gertler says. “If we’re going to be making similar demands, well, we’re probably going to need to pay farmers for those services.”

This article was originally published as “Going European” in the February 2, 2016 issue of Country Guide

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