Farmers Keen to Contact Politicians, And That’s Good News

When farmers aren’t busy farming, it turns out they’re busy lobbying the government with ideas, strategies and suggestions to keep farming vibrant.

A new members’ survey by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the province’s largest general farm group, shows many farmers are dedicating time to contacting representatives at all three levels – municipal, provincial and federal.

In fact, nearly 60 per cent of the 1,700 farmers who participated in this poll last fall said they have contacted at least one political representative. And almost one-quarter said they’ve contacted officials at all three levels within the last two years.

Does that level of engagement make them activists, or just concerned citizens?

Use whatever label suits you, but whatever the case, this high percentage is music to the federation’s ears.

General manager Neil Currie says the organization is “very pleased with this level of member involvement.”

Understandably so. The federation’s main function is lobbying, which the survey respondents said should indeed be a big part of what the group does.

But the federation has also been urging farmers to get involved themselves. Don’t leave it all to headquarters, it says – no matter what the level of credibility, people get tired of hearing from the same source all the time. Instead, take action yourselves. Let elected officials know what’s on your minds and establish relationships with decision makers.

Here’s why. There’s no substitute for politicians hearing directly from a constituent — particularly one who feeds a great many of your constituents! How can politicians help farmers keep doing their job? That advice is what politicians need to hear, and more than once every few years at the ballot box. Says federation executive member Debra Pretty-Straathof: “OFA relies heavily on member participation to help carry a united farm voice to government officials and policy makers on legislative changes,” she says. “Individual farmers, speaking the same message, can have a tremendous impact on government and policy makers.”

For its part, the survey revealed some other important information. For example, the federation wanted to know how members were lobbying politicians. That knowledge has a big impact on communication campaigns.

And while it might be trendy to say the preferred choices were social media, the fact is they weren’t — meetings, phone calls and letters were the top three ways members engaged their elected officials.

So in this case at least, just like print media prevails in agriculture, so do traditional forms of communications.

But then, after all this effort, what was the response? Well, I’d say it was kind of disappointing. Only two thirds of members who contacted a politician got a response. Why not 100 per cent?

Further revealing was that farmers were motivated to contact politicians on three main subjects: land use, government regulations and farm income or support programs

To me, that further underlines how farmers’ agendas and consumers’ interests have yet to marry. I don’t see local food, GMOs, animal welfare, wind energy or any of the public hot buttons on that list of farmers’ issues.

But hopefully it’s a teachable for farmers. The things you approach government about – your burning issues – are not shared by consumers.

So, it’s either time to educate consumers and get them to care about such issues, or change your emphasis. Let politicians know you can’t farm with too many land use restrictions, with too much red tape and without enough support from on high.

But don’t forget to underline to them your role in the things consumers care about – in particular, a safe, wholesome, affordable food supply.

And finally, let consumers know you understand their needs. Their support is pivotal to the future of farming.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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