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Understanding Farm Activism

Who does it? How’s it done? What works?



In more than four decades as an activist, Saskatchewan farmer, Pat Godhe has many memories. She’s carried placards, she’s met with bureaucrats and politicians, she’s worked to establish a dairy cooperative.? But one image stands out in her mind. It’s the afternoon Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, stepped off a helicopter at Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and flanked by his handlers . . . sprinted from the crowd assembled to meet him.

“We knew Trudeau was landing in Humboldt, in the area along highway 5 where the golf course is now,” she says. “It was a nice summer day. There were a lot of people there of course; it’s the prime minister. He did not address us. He got out of the helicopter and he just ran. I was shocked that he wouldn’t acknowledge the crowd and say something. He just ran. After that I kind of expected things like that from politicians. They don’t really want controversy.”

Sometimes activism is effective, and sometimes the man/woman you want to talk to just runs away. Maybe they listen, but do nothing to help. Sometimes who wins and who loses isn’t entirely clear.

Activism can be working to get rid of something such as genetically modified seed or it can be working to preserve something already in place such as supply management or to create something new such as a marketing cooperative. In recent conflicts regarding the Canadian Wheat Board there were activists on both sides of the debate. Some farmers wanted to keep the Wheat Board, others just as passionately wanted to get rid of it. It could be said that activism birthed the CWB and that activism is tearing it down.

Activism can take different forms. It can involve letter/email writing,? collecting names on a petition, organizing meetings, writing pamphlets, setting up websites,? arranging speaking engagements, joining and supporting a farm organization,? taking part in a rally or blockade and much more.

As to which of the many forms of activism works best, it depends on the circumstances, says Tony McQuail, Ontario farmer, activist and former executive assistant to provincial agriculture minister, Elmer Buchanan. “If you’ve got a situation where the people you’re dealing with . . . are willing to listen to thoughtful arguments and change their position, then a well thought through and rational discussion . . . why a different policy or position is appropriate could be very useful. On the other hand if you’ve got somebody who is not the least bit interested in listening to your situation or position, you’ve got somebody who’s about to close down your local abattoir, you’ve got a bank that’s about to foreclose on a neighbor because they encouraged them to borrow lots of money then all of a sudden decided to call the loan, then it’s time to get your friends, get your neighbours, get your customers and try to get between what you’re trying to protect and the people that are trying to tear it to pieces.” And, he adds, if possible figure out ahead of time who the best media contacts are, appoint a capable spokesperson and get the message out to a bigger audience.

Activism in action:?

What does that look like?

Derick Canning is a lobbyist on behalf of Dairy Farmers of Nova Scotia. He’s on the provincial Dairy Farmers’ board. “Once a year we go to Ottawa and talk to the government,” he says.

Each province sends four members from its provincial board. Canning goes with a group from Nova Scotia and meets with Nova Scotia MPs. “Our national organization basically suggests, if there’s any issues that are on hand, how to best go about explaining them,” he says. “Supply management is probably the biggest topic.”

Supply management is a sometimes controversial system used in Canada to regulate the amount of certain farm products (poultry and dairy) on the market — enough for Canadian demand and not so much as to create an excess. Farmers are assured a price that covers their cost of production and imports are controlled through tariffs.

The meetings Canning attends are in January or February. They last an average of half an hour. Some are concurrent, with some lobbyists meeting with the party in power and others with the opposition. They might also meet with senators, or with staff. The lobbyists explain why supply management is important to farmers, consumers, processors and tax payers.

“We basically have a discussion, answer questions and explain why we’re there. We report back to Dairy Farmers of Canada,” says Canning.

He is paid the usual regular meeting wage per diem, and he feels the lobby is successful.

“Supply management still exists and the current government continues to say they support it and will support it going forward. That’s basically all we go there for to ask for — their continued support.? We really don’t ask for anything else.”

Cathleen Kneen, activist ??

Back in the seventies, Cathleen Kneen was farming in Nova Scotia. To raise the profile of sheep, then regarded “as the dirty things that hung out in the bottom of the barn,” she organized a sheep fair.

Along with a breeding stock sale there were wool crafts, competitions, sheep dog trials, lectures, a dance and a barbeque at the fair. “It was a big event that really changed the whole tone of the sheep business in Nova Scotia.? It turned the association into something that was able later to take on the issue of marketing. Then we, (Cathleen, husband Brewster Kneen and Michael Isenor) started a lamb marketing cooperative 30 years ago.”

Today, Northumberland Lamb Marketing Cooperative markets most of the lamb in Nova Scotia.

Classifying the above as activism, Kneen defines the weekly radio program she did for CBC’s Radio Noon as advocacy. “It was just telling people what was going on on the farm.” Her goal was to bridge the rural/urban divide.

In B.C., in 1999, the provincial government was proposing a general overhaul of agricultural policy. The move was to a so-called harmonizing of regulations around B.C. abattoirs which would require all abattoirs to reach the federal export standards as opposed to what had been in place before, which was a provincial licensing standard, says Kneen. “The federal export standard had to do with facilities more than anything else,” she says. “It wasn’t necessarily about anything you or I would recognize as being food safety.”

Kneen was instrumental in getting a group together that became the B.C. Food Systems Network. Hearings were being held across the province and the Network worked to make sure every community understood that food security was a core issue for people “The point we wanted to bring forward was that food security needs to be considered as an element within the agriculture portfolio. It was about production of commodities, as far as the agriculture department was concerned, it wasn’t about food,” she says.

The B.C. Food Systems Network proposed that the government look at scale and scope appropriate regulations and maintain the opportunity for something parallel to what was the provincial licensing. “We certainly were very happy to see some rigorous attention to licensing,” says Kneen. “That wasn’t the issue at all.”

The point they were trying to make was that if an abattoir is killing a small number of animals that are going to be distributed locally, that is a different level of risk to public health (than that posed by a very large plant killing many animals for national and international distribution.) There should be a different level of regulation required, not a lesser level of oversight.

But, at that time the government pretty much went ahead with their original plans. “It took a lot longer before we finally got some changes and it’s an ongoing dance,” says Kneen.

Ironically, the changes that Kneen worked to bring about have now been adopted, but not without damage. In the meantime 90 percent of the abattoirs in B.C. have been lost; numbers have dropped from 300 to 30 and a considerable number of those plant operators have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in meeting the new standard.

“So, now when you say okay, these smaller ones don’t need to have the same facilities, the people who have just invested three quarters of a million dollars, not unreasonably, get a little bit upset. That’s the problem with not listening to what we said the first time.”

Tony McQuail, activist

Tony McQuail says he got involved in the local Ontario Federation of Agriculture because of two issues: the absentee foreign ownership of farmland and the high interest rate policies of the federal government in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties.

Proposals to build a coal or nuclear power plant in his county got him involved with CANTDU and the Huron Power Plant committee which was working with a number of different farm organizations. Out of that grew the Foodland Hydro committee which tried to address the issue of hydro placement through agricultural land.

Ultimately, it was decided not to build a nuclear power plant in Huron County but instead to put a second series of four reactors at Bruce Nuclear Power Development. Although the initial goal of the activists had been achieved, it was not an ideal solution. “We could have gone to a conserver strategy approach and been in a helluva better position today,” McQuail says.

So far, his two initial concerns, absentee ownership of farm land, and high interest rates, have not been rectified, but he does see progress on another cause he championed — the issue of stable and adequate funding for farm organizations. “There had been ongoing concern amongst the people active in farm organizations that while all received the benefits of policies and programs implemented by government, only a portion of the farmers supported the organizations that were doing all the work to bring these issues forward.”

In his position of executive assistant to the minister of agriculture, progress was made and in 1993 the NDP government enacted the Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act by which farmers who gross $7000 or more in a year can apply for a business registration number.

They then choose an accredited farm organization to join and the membership fee of $195 provides a source of funding for the organization.

McQuail says this legislation has created a more stable funding base and allowed farmers to be more effective lobbyists. It’s enabled farm organizations to hire staff to research issues and put forward their views to government. It’s also created a slightly better balance between the activist speaking on behalf of farm organizations and the lobbyist speaking on behalf of larger corporations, he says.? But it hasn’t redressed that issue completely. “I can’t say it has greatly increased activism but those that are active at least aren’t necessarily subsidizing the rest of the farm community,”

He also convened a committee which birthed the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan which includes funding, peer review, buffers, shelterbelts, pesticide handling and water management. These two programs are still in place today.

How to be an effective activist

Do your research. Know what you’re talking about,” says Tony McQuail.

Activists need to be aware that they are not the only ones with access to politicians and bureaucrats and they need to educate themselves as to the agenda of other groups with horses in the race.

“If you can make friends and contacts and work with people in government, that’s wonderful . . .? but don’t count on it because who are the politicians and the senior bureaucrats out to lunch with? Probably not you. At least not on a regular basis. Who are they listening to on a regular basis and what is their ideology? What is their understanding?”

Don’t try to re-invent the wheel, says Kathleen Kneen. “Use existing networks. Share contact lists. Work with established groups if you can.“

Organizing and organizations

“I’ve had it beaten into my head since I was about 15 that the thing to do was organize,” says Vic Althouse, MP 1980-1997, former NDP ag critic, former chairman of the NFU Grain & Oilseeds Commission, former secretary of the Saskatchewan Hog Marketing Commission and former member of the CWB Advisory Committee. I still believe as farmers we would be well advised to have one organization dedicated to looking after us as farmers. However, that doesn’t seem to be the way most look at it.”

Farmers are not terribly hard to organize but it’s hard to get them to think like an organization, and hard to find people to run the organization, says Althouse. “You need different people to get people signed up the first time . . . Then you need a different type of person to run the thing. And that was where we failed. We had a very active period towards end of the sixties, early seventies. The Farmers Union was doing a pretty good job of organizing, but we weren’t consistent.”

Organizations must have more than a leader. There has to be several others who could be leaders. “You have to make sure that you’ve got the kind of training to make it possible for any one of 15 or 20 people to take over at the drop of a hat, or the stop of a heartbeat or whatever. And that way you might have an organization that does something.”

There must also be training for people interested in the various positions, education not only on how to run an organization but ever up-dated knowledge on policies, and issues coming up that the organization will have to have a policy on.

“You have to have a bureaucracy to keep it on an even keel. These have to be paid positions.”

Organizations need someone to look after scheduling and there has to be some mechanism — some people to make sure that there’s a tie between the leadership and the membership and both sides know what’s going on to report either way — instructions from below and reports from above. For a while it worked by having monthly meeting but those broke up. What organization has a monthly meeting anymore?”

For some issues the internet is useful, he says. It’s a way to reach a lot of people quickly and sometimes it works on a short term basis but usually not for anything long term.

On the other hand, Althouse points out, “Farmers tend to leave organizations when they get a break.” He laments the lack of steady, ongoing participation from farmers in farm organizations.

It was more than 30 years ago that Pat Godhe stood stunned, as Trudeau sprinted from the crowd assembled to meet him. She`s forgotten what, if any issue they were there to espouse. Maybe they just wanted to welcome him to Saskatchewan. She hasn`t forgotten how she felt when he ran but as an organic farmer and activist she`s seeing the beginning of changes she has advocated for, seen a growing awareness of food, where it came from and how it got here, and she believes that in spite of the disappointments, and the disillusions, activism can really work. It is not something farmers can afford to turn their back on.