Farm Groups Try New Leadership Approach for Public Support

When your back’s against the wall, and talking and reasoning isn’t working, sometimes a 1-2 punch seems like the only forward.

For example, in recent times, some Ontario farm groups — grain farmers, in particular — have used what appeared to be a pretty tough approach in dealing with pressure over neonicotinoid pesticides.

People in agriculture understood. Grain farmers were frustrated, trying to catch up to an issue that had become a motherhood matter for activists. Actions were being taken against farmers way before all the facts were heard, or even known. Ultimately, farmers turned to the legal system.

Their approach resembled one from a few years earlier, when CropLife Canada lawyered up to challenge municipal legislation in Ontario against cosmetic pesticides.

Litigation was neither organization’s first approach. Both had tried stakeholder education, and lobbying through normal channels.

But against a huge and more sophisticated public relations machine, and with little public sympathy on their sides, they couldn’t convince the public to let them battle bugs and weeds with products and in ways that federal authorities had deemed sound.

Now, it’s time for a different approach. Big commodity groups — Grain Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Pork, Beef Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Ontario Processing Vegetable Growers and Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers — are coming together to try a kinder and gentler way of generating public support. They hope leadership, education and conversation will do what tough talk and litigation could not — namely, preserve the brand quality of Ontario agriculture, and stave off legislation that ties farmers’ hands.

They’re calling it a “comprehensive engagement strategy,” and it could result in some interesting pairings. The group quotes research showing the public trusts policies or programs that have support from organizations representing opposing viewpoints.

And with this group, trust is what it’s all about.

Through an initiative called Grow Ontario Together, the group will be addressing numerous issues it sees as being publically contentious — animal husbandry, nutrient management and water quality, among them. But first, it wants to address phosphorus, the nutrient blamed for algae blooms in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. Climate change and environmental sustainability are huge issues for Ontario’s highly urbanized provincial government, and the leadership group wants to be seen addressing it now.

Certainly, some phosphorus is associated with run-off from farms. The group acknowledges excessive phosphorus in the Great Lakes water system has resulted in algae growing faster than the ecosystem can handle, leading to decreased water quality, especially in Lake Erie. The unfortunate results can be closed beaches, fish kills and more elaborate municipal water treatment.

This was a huge issue years ago. When the connection between phosphorus loading and certain farm practices were realized, farm groups, led by pork producers and the University of Guelph, conducted a great deal of research and rallied together to help lessen phosphorus loading.

Amy Cronin

Amy Cronin, chair of Ontario Pork and spokesperson for the Grow Ontario Together initiative.

So, they’re not starting from scratch. They can point to some successes they’ve had, and drive towards their goal of what spokesperson Amy Cronin, chair of Ontario Pork, describes as “working with municipalities, environmental groups, citizens and bordering U.S. states to make sure we are all taking action. We recognize and acknowledge there is a problem and being proactive is one of the best ways to show the public we want to be part of the solution.”

Their four-point plan involves a research-based approach, recruiting arm’s-length expertise such as that found at the University of Guelph to arrive at mutually agreed upon science and data, and creating for provincial consideration what Cronin calls “a solid plan that works for everyone.” That will be one measure of victory, as will phosphorus reduction itself.

But too, let’s not overlook the mere act of coming together from such diverse and previously divisive perspectives, taking a different approach to leadership.

Says Cronin: “Being able to work together collaboratively is a measure of success in and of itself.”

 

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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