photo: Nathan Carey of the National Farmers Union introduces a panel discussing how ecological farmers can become better engaged in issues. Members of the panel (left to right) are Julie White of the Ontario Beekeepers Association, Matt Setzkorn of the Ontario Farmland Trust, and Ann Slater of the NFU. They spoke at the Ecological Farmers of Ontario conference held in Orillia Dec. 4-6.
by MIKE BEAUDIN
Individual farmers need to take time away from the daily routine and get actively involved in the political process if they want to influence issues that affect the agriculture community was the message of a panel of agricultural advocates during a farm conference on Saturday.
The panel, whose members represented a variety of interests, told the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) conference in Orillia that a grassroots approach often is the most effective way to sway decision makers.
Julie White treasurer of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, Ann Slater a National Farmers Union vice-president, and Matt Setzkorn, executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, talked about various government policies and explained how farmers could become more engaged.
The conference, the first of its kind for the EFAO, was held in Orillia from Dec. 4-6.
White said her association played a major role in influencing the provincial government to introduce recent legislation that would see an 80 per-cent reduction in acreage planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by 2017.
“It was a huge win for us,” said White.
She said beekeepers never paid attention to the effect of pesticides on pollinators until they experienced massive bee kills in 2012. At first, the association’s members tried a co-operative approach to come up with solutions but soon realized that they didn’t have enough support among farm groups.
White said they considered hiring public relations experts to help them get their message out but decided the best approach was to just tell their own story through social media, mainstream media, engaging beekeepers, writing letters and meeting with politicians of all stripes.
“We never got mean or nasty,” she said. “You have to show up and tell your story. Don’t give up.”
Keeping beekeepers engaged and informed was critical. A survey of members showed 93 per cent supported the strategies adopted by the association.
White said the association spent only $7,000 on their lobbying efforts, a fraction of what their opposition spent.
“You don’t need a lot of resources. This was a huge win for us but it’s not over yet. We have to stay involved and engaged.”
Setzkorn said Ontario Farmland Trust is making progress in protecting farmland from development but three million acres of Ontario farmland has been lost in the past 30 years.
New and creative approaches are necessary to permanently protect farmland, he said.
The trust was created 10 years ago to protect and preserve Ontario farmlands through direct land securement, stewardship, policy research and education. Steward said the trust is involved in a number of initiatives including engaging the public, trying to increase development charges and working with the province on its policy statement that now requires municipalities to designate agricultural areas.
He pointed to the Ontario Liberal’s Farms Forever program as a unique trust concept that will protect farmland permanently. Willing farmers will receive tax advantages or other incentives to protect their farms with easements to prevent future non-agricultural developments on the land, like housing subdivisions and aggregate pits.
Setzkorn said it’s critical for farmers to get involved at the grassroots level by observing what’s happening in their communities and identifying and protecting local farms.
Slater spoke about the importance of seed protection, outlining the NFU’s opposition to Bill C-18, the Agriculture Growth Act passed by the federal government in November.
She said as part of the bill, the federal government wants to apply UPOV ’91, an international convention that governs the intellectual property rights of plant breeders of new varieties of plants, here in Canada.
Slater said the bill gives multinational seed companies control by allowing them complete control over the saving and reusing, conditioning, stocking, importing and exporting of seeds.
“Seeds are powerful. Seeds are our hope for the future. Whoever controls seeds, controls the food supply,” she said.
Slater said farmers can change Ottawa’s seed policies by applying political pressure, talking to their members of Parliament, signing petitions and securing their own seeds. BF