I often write about what farmers think. But sometimes farmers, as a group, don't share similar thoughts whatsoever.
Their common ground is that they grow crops or raise livestock, and depend on sound environmental practices to remain sustainable — last Monday they celebrated the 7,500th environmental farm plan in Ontario. But after that, their respective portions of the farm sector are so varied and different that on more than a few occasions, they have little in common. Their industry and profession is much more diverse and varied than many others. In fact, Ontario has a more diversified farm economy than the rest of Canada.
So if that's true, why treat farmers as one entity? Why develop sweeping, wide-ranging programs and policies that try to serve all farmers, rather than initiatives that recognize diversity and sector differences?
One answer is simplicity. It's easier — and maybe more publicly acceptable — to treat all farmers the same. It's easier than incurring the wrath of a particular sector that feels neglected when another sector gets the government's attention and support.
But that approach is holding back Ontario agriculture, says David Sparling, executive director of the Guelph-based Institute of Agri-Food Policy Innovation.
In a new and timely report released last week by his institute, called Five Sectors, Five Futures, Sparling argues that Ontario's five leading farm sectors — grains and oilseeds, hogs, beef, dairy and greenhouses — are just too different to be served by the same price-support policies and strategies.
Farmers can't live on policies based on when the next government cheque will arrive, he says. And they can't all be treated as one industry.
Farm policies are under review right now. Ottawa — and indeed, the entire agricultural industry — is gearing up for a new policy framework that will fashion the federal government's multibillion-dollar involvement and support of farming. Many farm groups are directing their communications efforts toward trying to influence that framework in ways that support their industry.
Sparling doesn't represent a specific commodity, which makes his perspective more broad. For example, he wants the federal government to move away from programs and policies that are mainly meant to support farmers when prices or markets falter, and put 10 per cent more resources into innovation and new market development.
But he's not leaving it all on the shoulders of the government. In a unique move, Sparling is calling on the five sectors to take ownership in their own futures, which vary a lot among them, develop their own strategic plans and use them as a basis for helping Ottawa set its priorities.
This bottom-up approach is often sought and desired by federal and provincial officials who conduct public meetings and meet with farm groups when trying to set policy. But rarely do these officials have a sector-specific strategic plan handed to them which they can follow, and to which they — and the sector — can be held accountable.
A key to the timeliness of Sparling's report is the recent federal census of agriculture. It noted the emergence of small farms as a growing entity in Canada. And like the sectors themselves, small farms' needs are unique. Everything from labour to financing to crop and livestock selection and production is different on small farms compared to their larger counterparts.
Again, asks Sparling, why not develop policies that support such farms, particularly given their increasing role in the agricultural economy? They're a key to what's becoming known as the local food movement, because they're small enough to focus on valuable niche markets, and many of them are close to urban areas. The University of Guelph is studying the local food movement now, and may well arrive at research findings that support policy unique for small farms.
Despite their difference, though, there is one thing farmers agree on today, and that's the need for rain. So, I guess they're sometimes like-minded about certain matters. But Sparling's hit the nail on the head — policy-wise, farming needs to be viewed as separate sectors, which can be done without jeopardizing that cherished one voice for agriculture that farm leaders say they need. There can still be one voice on wide-ranging matters such as the demand for new technology, environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare. But to move each sector along and help them seize on their individual strengths and opportunities, his suggestion of specific policies is right.