Taking a hard look in the agricultural lobbying mirror

by

Opinion

Now that the federal cabinet has been selected and we have spent the last ten days worrying about the challenges and pin-pointing the potential positives, the agricultural industry needs to step back and build a better game plan when it comes to lobbying.

Over time, lobbying for the agriculture industry has transitioned from being focused on the ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food to having to lobby multiple departments and ministers, such as Health, Finance, Environment and Climate Change, Natural Resources, Trade, and Rural Economic Development.

We only need to look at the carbon tax, or the Clean Fuel Standard, or the proposed fertilizer emission target to see how policy and legislation being developed outside of AAFC has a profound impact on agriculture.

Agriculture’s lobbyists do a great service to this industry, but the challenge ahead is a step-change from where things were at even 15 years ago.

I’m not a lobbyist, but I’m privileged to have access to some of the most influential people in this industry. From discussions with them, and my own observations, I’ve put together some topics that farmers and farm groups could examine closer, in the spirit of constant improvement and asking ourselves what we need to do to achieve our goals.

Money, Money, Money

Money does make the world go ’round and any change in capacity will likely require more dollars and not fewer. This will be a definite question of the grassroots commitment to achieving goals and farm group staffs’ ability to communicate the strategy and be persuasive. Spending foolishly is not acceptable, but targeted tactics attached to measurable results is good business in any industry. I think its always good practice to compare yourself to other industries to get an idea on benchmarks. What are the aerospace or automotive sectors spending on lobbying and communications, relative to the size of their industries? Additionally, I would encourage Canadian farm groups to look to the U.S. or Europe to measure themselves against their peers in the same commodity type.

Economic analysis capacity

One of the pieces that I see missing within our current Canadian farm groups’ capacity is in-depth research and analysis of potential or current policy decisions. This is a function that can be outsourced, and in some cases it is, but there definitely is an internal gap. It may not be a fair comparison due to the scale differences, but the American Farm Bureau has four economists listed on staff while many major Canadian farm groups have none. Obviously, the ability to bring in more economic analysis resources requires more money (see point above). Would it serve the industry’s interests to have more quantitative analysis available to them?

Bring in the heavy hitters

Life was simpler when agricultural farm groups had to just deal with AAFC on policy development. Now that agriculture is having to take on so many battles across ministries, it may be time to reconsider and re-deploy resources available. When dealing with higher priority portfolios such as Health, Trade, and Environment and Climate Change, we have to ask ourselves if we are still assuming that everyone knows agriculture, values it, and understands its needs.

Many of these portfolios touch agriculture, but they can be detached from its realities, especially on technical issues. Would a shake-up in our approach or the kind of face delivering the message be warranted? On certain issues and depending on the ministry, is it time to bring in the higher priced, big lobbying heavy hitter that would be more prevalent working for aerospace, automotives, or oil and gas?

Connecting the grassroots to the end goal

We have really focused on outbound lobbying and advocacy so far, but possibly one of the greatest challenges farm groups face is communicating and connecting with the grassroots. With the added complexity of multiple ministries creating agricultural policy, the further political fracturing in the country, and the lack of face-to-face meetings over the past 18 months, it’s going to take real work for farmers and farm groups to be running in parallel on issues. Farm groups are going to have to find ways to better inform members on issues and farmers are going to have to take more of an interest in the issues and the challenges ahead. People representing farmers in Ottawa can only go as far as their mandate allows.

Strength in numbers

The last question I have is whether we actually have the numbers to be effective. Is some of the industry’s ability to effectively accomplish its policy goals a sheer question of volume? Can the limited political staff of Canadian farm groups actually execute based on the resources available? If the answer is no, then the danger is that we are fighting a multi-front challenge and will lose, even with AAFC, because we cannot do it all. It would be similar to a farm being understaffed at planting time — the job simply does not get done on time or the way it should be done.

Final Thoughts

You may read through these questions and points and think that I am looking to just spend money. As mentioned in point one, what money is available is the answer to whether any of the other questions are even possible or worth asking. Like any kid that makes a Christmas list, all of the above may not be possible or feasible, but the status quo may also be significantly detrimental to certain sectors of our industry. There’s a lot at stake. It’s time that we start asking ourselves tougher questions; it’s a healthy process to undertake if we actually want to be effective with multiple ministries, a general lack of knowledge of agriculture, and so much at stake.

Related:

RealAg Politics, Ep 4: The lobbying episode

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