LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Sometimes it's not so different
Ontario farmers fight Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart for the ear of the people

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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February 16, 2005: Twice now the countryside has invaded Toronto, delivering a message of frustration and a demand for change and support. Twice, the urban media scrambled for a quick education on countryside issues before refocusing on Martha Stewart’s comeback and Michel Jackson’s lifestyle.

To be fair, the urban media did get the key messages right. The stories I read and heard had the Ontario Federation of Agriculture-led demonstration focused on more money for the business of farming and problems with how regulations are handled. The Lanark Landowner-led protest delivered the message that over-regulation is eroding the ability to earn a living in rural Ontario.

The problems were defined and communicated. Were the solutions?

The suggested solution for farming’s money woes was an immediate cash infusion in an amount exceeding the total budget of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Immediate help is urgent, but let's not kid ourselves that this puts anything right. Short-term help is likely to hinder repositioning the business of farming in Ontario. Remember the Crow Rate – that transportation subsidy to western grain that disappeared in the 1995 federal budget? It took political guts to pull the plug on that immediate help and replace it with a one-time payout for diversifying prairie agriculture and boosting the value-added sectors. Once gone, Manitoba set out to export grain in pig skins and Alberta did the same on-the-hoof – until BSE. Commodity grain production in Ontario, without value-added activities, has meager economic rewards in the marketplace. Isn't it time to redirect our productive agricultural resources to those activities from which we can expect a satisfactory reward?

Meanwhile the fine print in the Lanark Landowners Association’s 11 resolutions relies heavily on stronger private property rights to balance burgeoning government regulations. Coming from a landowners organization, the solution is very understandable: but I can’t advise farm business people to uncritically endorse this remedy. Think of the consequences, should private property rights be over-emphasized:

  1. Ontario’s drainage legislation supports the creation of drainage systems. Enshrined property rights would make it much harder to create and maintain these multiple-property drainage projects.
  2. Municipalities have a responsibility to decide on land use to the benefit of all. More emphasis on individual property rights will make it much harder to protect our best farmland from urban sprawl for the business of farming.
  3. Agriculture, on occasion, causes discomfort because of noise, dust and odor. Stronger property rights will give farming’s many neighbors stronger legal routes for raising complaints.

Our provincial government needs to heed the frustration smoldering in the countryside. We, back on the farm, need to develop better and more doable solutions.

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