Farmers know ag’s “multiple-benefits”, but wonder how to make them profitable

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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December 13, 2002: Given a chance, a multi-benefit approach to agriculture can grow on farmers.

It certainly did during the Christian Farmers Federation's workshop series last winter. As each workshop progressed, there was increased support for the idea that farming needs to work for food production, for taking care of creation, for community development, and for family life.

The initial reaction to multi-benefit agriculture was positive and cautious. Participants saw merit, but were not swept up by the vision. They were interested, but made no assumptions that it was going to unhook farming from difficult trade-offs - from values giving way to "economic necessities."

The draft CFFO vision document identified 18 trends in Ontario agriculture. A high percentage of the workshop participants - 75 percent or more -- agreed strongly or agreed somewhat that each trend contributes to the weakening of agriculture in Ontario. There was a strong consensus that a better future for Ontario agriculture will need a multi-pronged approach.

In small breakout groups workshop participants documented and articulated both weaknesses and strengths of multi-benefit agriculture. Weaknesses included: fear of change, the TINA syndrome (There Is No Alternative), risk to farm family income, lack of clout in the marketplace, and consumer resistance.

Strengths included: a marketplace that is alive with change, a growing commitment to environmental stewardship, a renewed willingness to take responsibility, new examples of successful cooperation, and a quality of life worth defending.

Participants welcomed the idea of environmental payments as part of the vision. They agreed that publicly-funded payments were justified for the wider environmental services their farm activities provide. They did not see environmental payments as an alternative to production subsidies. They welcomed them as an addition to existing production support.

Near the end of each workshop, participants were willing to move beyond talking about a new vision to the process of planning action. In small groups they recorded over 300 ideas in response to the question: "What needs to be done to implement, move forward or gear up for our emerging vision?" Some asked for a better definition of the vision, questioned funding and raised concerns. At least 65 percent were ready to think action, with ideas about engaging farmers, taking responsibility and promoting implementation.

Many of the workshop participants were willing to be part of developing an alternative future for Ontario agriculture - one that challenges the status quo. While they believe that multi-benefit agriculture is consistent with their values, they have reservations about its immediate practicality. As the workshop progressed their support for the vision grew. On balance, they concluded that the vision of a multi-benefit agriculture is worthy of guiding CFFO's labours for years to come.

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.

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.