The divide between farmers and environmental NGOs is widening. So is the gap in understanding between northern and rural Ontario, the region’s natural resource industries and some environmental groups.
Efforts are underway to promote more harmony between all sides. But it will take a while to turn this ship around.
In Ontario, grain farmers are trying to contribute to the conversation. But they say they can’t stand by, watch business opportunities slip away and wait for a resolution.
Who can blame them? The environmental merry-go-round they’ve been on is enough to make anyone’s head spin.
Now, after nearly a year of negotiating, a coalition has been formed among grain farmers, the forestry industry and northern and rural Ontario community representatives. It’s called Growing Ontario, with a stated mandate of raising the awareness of the importance of their industries to the rest of the province.
With proper guidance, there’s a good chance Growing Ontario could turn into a real heavy hitter, for a couple of reasons.
First, it brings together economically significant sectors — with an estimated $30 billion in economic activity — that have long had common interests, but never exploited them publicly for advocacy purposes. Growing Ontario says it represents 28,000 grain farmers, 50,000 forestry workers and more than 120 municipalities that rely on natural resources.
Second, it’s based out of downtown Toronto, where anti-agriculture, anti-forestry sentiments percolate the most.
Third, although Growing Ontario may have some public education role, most of its time will be spent lobbying, hitting decision makers over the head with data and stories that underline the importance of natural resources and rural Ontario. It’s determined to restore the respect that’s eroded away.
“Whether it’s the food we eat, the lumber that provides us shelter, the fuel that keeps us warm or moving, or the raw materials woven into the textiles that we wear, Ontario farmers and forestry workers are meeting the vital needs of Ontario families everyday and providing those needs in a very sustainable fashion,” according to Growing Ontario.
“Their contribution to our economy deserves recognition, their stories of innovation practices deserve to be shared and their commitment to protecting our environment for future generations should be acknowledged.”
A final point is that agriculturally, the North is opening up. As RealAgriculture reported back in 2014, the Clay Belt in northern Ontario and Quebec covers 180,000 sq. km, the bulk of which sits on the Ontario side. The fertile soil produces great grass, perfect for grazing cattle. And if you’ve ever treated yourself to a bottle of artisanal Loon vodka, distilled in Hearst from grain grown nearby, you’ll know there are regions in the north that have unique and marketable agronomic attributes.
Working with municipalities aligns with efforts underway by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to drive home the importance of farming to the province.
Case in point: The federation’s huge 104-member policy advisory council says agricultural growth is being impeded by some municipalities’ approaches to planning, economic development and community engagement. The number one challenge identified by federation members is poor understanding of farm practices and the realities of living near farming neighbours.
“Municipal leaders have a responsibility to learn and understand what the agricultural industry is all about – an industry that drives our rural economy and feeds our province,” says the federation. Working with Growing Ontario could help those municipal leaders work in better harmony with farmers.
I talked about the new organization with Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Mark Brock and vice-chair Mark Huston. They see Growing Ontario as a new way of getting the government’s ear before issues escalate, like what happened with the neonicotinoid dust up.
“We’ll be doing something in Queen’s Park, but it will be non-confrontational,” says Brock. “We really want to get across the economic sense of our industry, and make government understand we need a business environment that allows us to innovate and adapt. The numbers of farmers are dropping, and reaching out to others who are experiencing similar problems is one way to increase agriculture’s voice.”
Sometimes that’s called amplification. It’s worked for others. The opponents of modern agriculture have succeeded getting inside MPPs’ offices as lobbyists rather than as protesters, and getting some environmental groups to sympathize with their cause. They recognize they get more mileage out of developing relationships and having discussions with decision makers, than they do by chaining themselves to trees.
Some will wonder if another self-interest farm group like this is needed. I say it is. Agriculture is past the point of needing to pull out all the stops. It needs to spark alliances with forestry and rural municipalities to promote a better understanding of farming’s true value to Ontario and beyond. Growing Ontario is a good way to do it.