Christian farmers plead for calm and unity; says “government doesn’t need farmers anymore”

Major commodity groups in Ontario have joined forces to make high-profile public pronouncements against the swelling tide of sentiment over their use of pesticides. But at least one organization is not in lock step with the rest

Members of some of the largest farm organizations in the province, such as Grain Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Ontario Agri-Business Association, have gone together to buy full-page “open letter to Ontarians” ads in daily newspapers, such as the Guelph Mercury.

They’re trying to counter claims from anti-technology groups, some farmers and beekeepers and some scientists that farmers’ use of neonicotinoids is wreaking havoc on bees.

In their plea for support, these farmers cite sources of their own; particularly, Statistics Canada data that shows bee colonies are actually growing, not shrinking.

In Ontario, they say, field research does not support claims that neonicotinoid pesticides are the sole cause of bee colony health issues. Parasites, disease, nutrition, poor weather and poor hive management are really the top issues, they claim, and they want proposed legislation stopped that would limit their use of neonicotinoids.

They believe Ontarians are not hearing their side of the story. So, they’re put pen to paper to try to build support for their efforts.

“It’s not every day that we, the 28,000 farm families in Ontario, ask for support from our fellow Ontarians,” they write. “Then again, having newly proposed agricultural regulations threaten our ability to provide you with made-in-Ontario food, fibre and fuel isn’t an everyday occurrence.”

The neonicotinoid issue is as much an activist activity as it is a farming matter. People who have little more than a passing interest in bees have been whipped into a frenzy. It’s pretty easy to get some members of the public stirred up about any pesticides. That’s especially true when the province proposes legislation to limit their use

The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, the main alternative general farm group in the province (to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture) did not add its name to the open letter to Ontarians.

But the Christian farmers’ perspective on where this battle is headed became clear last week when it released a weekly commentary from board member Peter Peeters with the eye-popping headline “Government doesn’t need farmers anymore.”

That was a shocker. From my perch, the government needs farmers more than ever. So do Ontarians.

But it turns out that’s not really what the Christian farmers meant.

Reading on, what they were trying to say is that for the first time in a long time, rural Ontario does not have an elected member inside the provincial legislature. There’s no rural person looking out for farmers’ interests, says the federation.

And to them that changes things.

First, it says, farmers need to approach government with an extended hand, rather than a clenched fist — engage in dialogue and adapt strategies and policies to capture the interest of the decision makers. Take what Peeters calls a “gentler and more cooperative approach” and support issues with “scientific facts and figures,” which is what the mainstream farm groups think they’re doing, and one reason they are so frustrated in the first place.

Anyway, he says, protests are not likely to work in this political climate. “If we are adversarial to the government we will lose.  They are Goliath and we are David without a slingshot…getting angry because you’re not getting your way isn’t helping the cause.”

While not naming the open-letter approach by the others, they certainly throw water on such inflammatory tactics.

Peeters says he believes the government is providing ample opportunities for farm groups to provide input. Indeed, last week the province appointed members to its new Agri-Food Growth Steering Committee, to provide advice on how to meet the Premier’s challenge of doubling the farm sector’s annual growth rate and creating 120,000 new jobs in the sector by 2020.

The eight-person committee is co-chaired by a farmer, Amy Cronin, the chair of Ontario Pork and a hog farm operator, and has one other farmer member, egg producer Scott Graham.

Most farmers agree with Peeters on one thing: research-based decisions must be the order of the day. A key here is to be able to explain them clearly, without hysteria, and that responsibility falls on everyone. Reaching out to the public through the media in a responsible manner is a tactic that can help information get to those who want it and need it.

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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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One Comment

Jim Hair

To be fair, there are rural MPPs within the government, such as Lou Rinaldi from Northumberland. Lou has always been a strong supporter of the ag community.

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