John Stafford: OFA champion
by Colleen Halpenny
Still residing on the original Stafford family farm in Howick, John Stafford’s history in Ontario agriculture speaks to a generational love of farming. “A Stafford has lived on this farm since 1868. We still have the deed from the Crown, signed by Queen Victoria!” he proudly proclaims.
Born in 1935, and excited to have recently celebrated his 87th birthday, John’s passion for agriculture, and his fellow producers, is still very evident.
“I was born into farming, and once (my wife) Betty and I married in 1958, we entered into a partnership with my parents. Mixed farming was the most common in those days and that’s what we did.
“Unfortunately, my mother and stepfather passed within our first two years of being home, but Betty and I didn’t want to give up farming. So, we bought out my siblings’ shares and were on our own, on the road to success or failure.
“We started into the dairy business with purebred Holsteins and continued until 1986, when we dispersed the herd and shifted our focus solely to cash cropping and custom work with our sons.”
It was during those years that John’s involvement with public service began, and he found his passion for serving others.
“At the local Federation of Agriculture level, some of the older council members asked for me to allow my name to stand for a delegate position. That was the beginning of it all. I wanted to work towards making things better, not just in the short term, but in ways farmers could rely on.”
Those beginning years were all about learning to find solutions for farmers and become a champion of their voice to corporations and government agencies.
“Before the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and memberships as we know them today existed, we were called the General Farmers Organization, and to be a part of it you purchased a $25 Individual Service Membership. It was a fairly small group of us working to unite farmers of all industries.”
John remembers being met with animosity when discussing the topic of joining with other producers. “Farmers were reluctant to change. I travelled up and down those concessions trying to raise awareness and increase memberships. We had an uphill battle on our hands.”
With a lack of support from producers and farmer’s unions who were hesitant to pay the membership fees, John and his fellow delegates knew they needed to focus on delivering solutions to turn the tide.
“Gordon Hill was instrumental in persevering through those tough years of slow support and working towards founding what we know today as the OFA. I was lucky enough to be one of the spokespersons for Huron and Bruce counties, spreading the good word of our objectives.
“It was a feather in my cap when Gordon became president of OFA. I really believed in his passion for each farmer and was glad that other voting members did as well. I was excited to work alongside him and be a part of the positive impacts his vision had on the industry.”
With slow progress and rock-solid determination, the results began to emerge, and trust among producers was won. “Farmers started praising our good work. And your fellow farmer’s word has heavy weight in swaying a mind. It became a club of sorts that they all then wanted to join and be a part of.”
“They finally saw the good of the membership,” explains Betty. “It brought together a clout of voices who could speak to your needs. Having that large of a support behind you made your needs better heard to those who needed to listen.”
John chuckles as he recalls, “There was no greater feeling than hearing positive feedback. I have a pamphlet from 1970 with a column titled ‘A Friend in Need’ where a farmer had written in to thank the OFA for their support on an issue. They say that without the board it would not have been so. Comments like that made the job worth it all.”
His dedication to serving others continued to expand. “I’ve been on so many boards, I’m ‘board’ to death!” he jests.
Duties at Howick Township and Huron County councils, committee boards at Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, Ontario Soybean Board, Grain Financial Protection Board, and Canada Grains Council, and as a consultant for the Farm Debt Review committee – John fondly remembers them all.
“Chatting and learning from so many others, the years flew by. Working to make those changes a reality for farmers was just so rewarding.”
At one point, John, along with others, was commissioned by the government of Ontario to study farm organizations. “Our objectives were simple – to help farmers help themselves and improve their social and economic positions, and in particular, to improve the incomes of farmers by any means which were desirable to members. Also, to improve returns and resources of farmers by any means desirable, and to represent farmers to the rest of society and government, and other groups to improve the general well-being of farmers as members.
“These goals, and what we campaigned for in the early years, are still what these boards are working diligently for today. Providing a united voice for farmers, advocating for their needs, and sourcing solutions to allow for a better future for the industry.”
Boards and committees also provided John and Betty the opportunity to travel – something they both recall as a highlight of their years of service.
“When I was a spokesperson for Jack Wilkinson on his run for the chairman of the board for the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, I had the pleasure of travelling to Manila. Wow, what a trip!
“We also got to travel to conventions across the U.S. when I was serving on the Ontario Soybean Board.
“So, we merged our passion for discussing markets and farmers, learning about new opportunities and advancements, and exploring the world.”
Later, John and Betty bought a motorhome to continue taking themselves on new adventures.
When asked what advice he could pass along to farmers who might be considering public service, John’s answer is simple. “Do it – but do it right. Don’t cut corners. Be sure of your facts.
“There will always be those out there who will misquote you or put you in a bad light; look to surround yourself with fellow people who have the same ideals as you.”
Rob VandenHengel, current president of the Huron County Federation of Agriculture, says “John has always been so great to work with. He’s always had the best interest of farmers at heart.
“Huron County is proud to have been so well represented by John and see the good work he’s done to support larger ventures for farmers across Ontario.
“We’re grateful for John’s lengthy service as a spokesperson for our industry.”
John expresses his pleasure in watching the growth and achievements of the boards and committees on which he once worked.
“I love getting the newsletters and updates on what they’re working toward next. The momentum has not let up in delivering for farmers.
“This year marks a new chapter for us; we’ve officially transferred the farm to the next generation. So, it’s the first time I’m not a registered OFA member. But it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading up on what they have in the works.”
John is still filling his days with his passions, and always an avid sports fan, he’s still curling in the local league. He and Betty look forward to taking the motorhome out this summer and road-tripping once again. BF