Resolutions to Change the Approach to Farming

December 28, 2005

Farming challenges in 2006 are likely to be those that we face today — unless governments change their approach to farming. I propose three New Year resolutions for governments.

Give farmers clout in the food chain. Undertake a dramatic rewrite of Ontario’s marketing legislation, the Farm Products Marketing Act. The present act creates just one point of access for farmers to the food chain — their immediate buyers. The legislation focuses primarily on our processors. In today’s managed food chain, dominated by a few retail giants, immediate buyers, processors, don’t have much market clout to share. Change the Act — enable farmers to negotiate for fair prices with the whole food chain, especially retailers and consumers. Make it possible to include retailers and consumers at the fair price negotiation table.

Pay for environmental goods and services. Farming has changed its footprint in the environment. The pesticides we apply are less toxic. Wildlife of various kinds has returned to the farming countryside. Reduced tillage practices are moderating soil erosion and farming’s impact on the fish in our streams. But many of these improvements are not deeply rooted in a stewardship mindset. Change in farm practices has been bought with cost-share programs and in the process has encouraged the mindset that stewardship of our environment is a cost to the business of farming. Stewardship action requires public cost-share dollars. Farmers have taken advantage of a steady stream of cost-share programs since the early 80s: Land Stewardship I & II, Clean Up Rural Beaches, grants for Environmental Farm Plan initiatives, to name a few. This cost-share approach is now lurching towards a regulatory approach. The time to change this mindset is now. Investing in the environment will be an integral part of the business of farming if society pays for the results of those investments. Farmers and landowners can learn that environmental enhancement is good business if society pays for the additional wildlife, the clean water and the fresh air on an annual and whole-farm basis. Pay for environmental goods and services — and turn environmental stewardship into an asset for agriculture.

Support local, sustainable farming: Consider this: Ontario is a net importer of food. The province is expecting millions more to settle here in the years to come. Farming in Ontario does not need to rely on exports for growth. Let’s build on import replacement and connecting with a very diverse urban population. Enable the infrastructure of a local food system — an agricultural development officer in every municipality, investment support to farmers so that they can restructure their businesses to serve local markets, legislation protecting regional branding, land use and taxation policies that encourage value added activities on the farm and food safety guidance designed for local markets.

In 2006 there are 366 days in which to get these resolutions done.

Elbert van Donkersgoed

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This commentary was first published as Corner Post, Farm & Countryside Commentary #413.

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