LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Recipe for unrest: No defined problem + excessive regulations = unnecessary on farm frustration

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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Posted June 19, 2003: Our provincial government has backed away from writing regulations under the recently adopted Nutrient Management Act that would have resulted in a comprehensive resource management strategy that nets all farmers in detailed regulations and protocols - at least for now. We'll soon see a rewrite of the regulations that will be focused on large and new livestock enterprises.

I'm glad but still concerned. The official government line has not changed. They still expect that five or ten years down the road every Ontario farm must comply with the Nutrient Management Act. Delay is good politics. A large group of farmers will choose to retire before they are saddled with documenting the strategies and plans they use on their farms. Creating this regulatory burden is not good public policy. It remains the wrong approach to better stewardship in our countryside.

Regulations have their place in our lives. They need clear goals and identifiable benefits. There is a case to be made for nutrient management strategies and plans for our larger and intensive farms. But for the vast majority of farmers, what's the point of writing down their plans and documenting what they have been doing for decades? There may be validity in the argument that there is a public relations benefit for agriculture to document what it does. Since when is public relations a rationale for regulations? And where is the benefit for our environment?

I'm on side with Justice O'Connor's approach to regulations and stewardship in his report on the Walkerton Inquiry. Step one: identify the agricultural activities that may be a threat to drinking water sources. Step two: set a minimum regulatory baseline or "floor" that applies across the province wherever the threat may exist.

Where are we on step one: the identification of threat? When farmers spread their fertilizer -- as livestock manure or otherwise - close to a municipal well, what is the threat? When it is spread on frozen ground or snow, what is the threat? When it is spread close to a stream or on shallow soil over bedrock, what is the threat? Agreeing to the possibility of threat is not the same as documentation of the threat. We are on the verge of ordering farmers to document solutions before we document the problems. A recipe for frustration.

Regulation is acceptable where the threat is predictable or has been measured. Beyond the quantifiable threats, there are many opportunities for agriculture to enhance the environmental services farming provides while producing an abundance of quality food.

Public money and government programs will be much more successful if we focus them on education and incentives that inspire farmers to develop environmental services.

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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.