Farm Leaders Need to Be Careful: Enabling Bad Policy Is an End Game

Last April 5th I gazed out into a crowd of 10,000 people in front of me at the Parliament Buildings.  I wouldn’t say everything about that was easy.  I had never spoken to that many people before.  However, as the pitch of the Ottawa Solidarity Farm Rally reached a crescendo everybody on stage felt good.  We had made a difference.

Or did we?  Was I correct in that estimation?  Or was it an emotional high, making everybody feel good at what was the eleventh hour for many farmers.

I’ve thought a lot of about it.  You can imagine.  I was asked to participate at a level where I was the focal point many times.  I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself or anybody else.  I wanted to be credible, solid and the best agricultural economist “on the fly” I could be.

The bottom line was I had a choice of whether I wanted to do that or not.  On the weekend of February 18th and 19th I was working in Louisville Kentucky.  On the night of February 20th I was speaking about “Terrorism, Politics and Poverty” with Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque at the University of Windsor.  I left there at 9p.m. on the 20th, drove home, got three hours sleep, shuttled to Toronto and caught a plane to Ottawa.  I landed about 9:30a.m. on the 21st and spoke amid the snow flakes at the farm rally in front of Sir John Carling Building at noon.  I did it because I believed in the big picture.  That is Canadian agriculture needs an agricultural stabilization and support system that works.

Three months later the emotions have subsided and in many ways we are all much worse off.  The beef industry will probably never recover for BSE.  The hog industry in Ontario has had to suffer through the circovirus causing huge losses in pig barns.  Grain and oilseed farmers don’t even need to explain.  Even though futures prices have improved recently, the high Canadian dollar has eroded cash prices substantially.  And dollar stores throughout Canada are selling pickles for $1/jar from India.  So don’t ask me how the horticulture guys are doing.  It is what it is.

The question is what happens now?  Will there again be increased activism going into the fall of 2006 and winter of 2007?  Or should everybody take time to measure what actually happened and come up with a different plan.  Is government actually about to invest in agriculture or are we still in the same old, same old?

Clues might come from what’s been happening in Ontario lately.  Leona Dombrowsky, Ontario’s agriculture minister recently named a 16 member committee which in “OMAFRA speak” will advise government on innovative directions for the agriculture sector.  The following is from an OMAFRA press release date July 5, 2006

The 16-member committee is drawn from a broad cross-section of the agri-food industry. It will advise Dombrowsky on how to best implement an industry vision and strategic directions that came out of the Premier’s Summit on Agri-Food, held in February 2006.

The directions include:

identifying barriers, opportunities and potential partners for a marketing strategy for organic and niche products, and
identifying solutions on how to speed up bioproduct innovation and access to lucrative markets.

Some of the 16 members I know.  In fact a couple were on the stage at the Ottawa farm rally.  One person actually worked on my farm once.  So there is solid farm representation.  The chairman, former deputy agriculture minister Rita Burak once became so angry about something in this column, she phoned me on the government’s tab at home and actually called me a name, which she later in the conversation actually apologized for.

The question is should farmers be involved in this at all.  Isn’t Leona Dombrowsky the minister who refuses to enact RMP for Ontario’s grain and oilseed producers?  Didn’t she watch as former minister Steve Peters stood by and flushed MRI and NISA down the toilet by signing the APF?  Aren’t her policies part of the reason Ontario farm income is going negative this year?  You bet.

Farmers on this committee need to be careful.  An argument could be made that they are enabling Drombrowsky’s failed policies by taking part in this committee.  However, I’m sure if you asked them they’d say its better to work from the inside to the best of their abilities.  I’ll give them that.  However, they have to be careful or they’ll waste everything grassroots farmers have fought for.  Dombrowsky’s agricultural safety net policy direction has been a disaster for Ontario farmers.  Farm rally after farm rally last winter gave testament to that.  Getting on board this ship may be like being part of the dance band on the Titanic.