by SUSAN MANN
The francophone farm group, L’Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens, is scheduled for a hearing before an Ontario agricultural tribunal to assess its continued eligibility for special funding under provincial law.
The hearing before the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal is scheduled for Aug. 27 in Ottawa. The group’s current eligibility under Ontario’s Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act expires in November. It must be renewed every three years.
As part of the Act, the francophone farm group is able to collect special funding for its operations from the three accredited general farm groups – the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and the National Farmers Union – Ontario. Those three general farm groups’ accreditation must also be renewed every three years.
The three general farm groups get funding through Ontario’s mandatory farm business registration system where farmers with annual gross incomes of $7,000 or more must register and pay an annual fee of $195 plus HST to one of the three groups. Agricorp administers the registration system. Farmers must also sign membership forms to be considered members of the groups. After paying the fee, farmers have a limited time each year to ask the farm group they directed their fee to for a refund. Their farm business registration number remains in effect for the year even though they’ve received a refund.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says starting next year there won’t be a need for farmers to sign an annual membership form because the government changed regulations to remove references to members. The regulations now refer to supporters, which are people who pay the farm business registration fee. “We’re looking forward to not having to do the two-step process in the future.”
Details haven’t been worked out yet, but farmers might still have to sign a one-time membership form, he says.
Lorne Small, president of Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, says they welcome changes to make signing the membership form a one-time event rather than yearly.
Wales says the government regulation change should help the organizations go through the next reaccreditation process a lot easier.
The Ontario federation also asked for other changes but those haven’t been approved. The federation plans to continue pushing for the changes. One is to raise the minimum membership requirement currently set at 250 people that accredited organizations must meet. “Only having to have 250 people who support you is really, in this day and age, a farce,” he says. “We have suggested anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 (people) would be a more appropriate number.”
The Christian Farmers also supports raising the minimum membership requirement for accredited farm groups to the 1,000-supporter level but NFO-O doesn’t. Karen Eatwell, president and Region 3 coordinator of NFU-O, says raising the number could possibly eliminate their organization and “we need to have a choice so that a farmer has a choice of the three existing organizations. One or two farm organizations doesn’t speak to all farmers.”
NFU-O currently has about 1,400 supporters through the farm business registration process and that’s 400 more than the 1,000 they were projecting to have this year, Eatwell says. In 2013, NFU-O didn’t have any supporters under the system as the organization temporarily lost its accreditation but gained it back after a successful Ontario court challenge of the tribunal’s decision to not reaccredit the group.
Small says in supporting an increase in the minimum membership requirement their intention was never to make the NFO-O disappear as all three general farm groups currently are above the 1,000-supporter level.
“Our concern is there may be some other smaller groups with a single issue wanting to register as a general farm organization,” he explains. But with a least 1,000 people “you have to have a diversity. If you’re going to represent all of Ontario, you need probably a minimum of 1,000 members to do it.”
Wales says there have also been discussions about raising the $195 plus HST fee but any fee changes require “opening up the Act.” He notes they don’t have an actual new number yet for what any higher fee would be. “We’re just trying to understand the process because opening up the Act is not on.”
All three accredited farm groups have to work on how to get future farm business registration fee increases because one group can’t do it on its own, he says.
Small says the idea would be to have small, regular fee increases similar to the way the government proposed future minimum wage increases track Consumer Price Index increases.
Eatwell says NFU-O hasn’t yet discussed any fee increases but “I am going to personally say that I don’t think we feel at this point we need to be increasing it.” The last time the fee was increased was about to four to five years ago, she says.
Sean McGivern, president of Practical Farmers of Ontario, says they have about 200 members and they have no plans currently to seek accreditation under the farm business registration system. “We like what we’re doing and it seems to be working for our members.”
Simon Durand, general manager of L’Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens, says their hearing later this month is being held to maintain the organization’s access to special funding. He says the organization used to be on the same schedule of hearings before the tribunal as the three accredited general farm groups. But during the last round of hearings in 2012 when the three accredited farm groups had trouble gaining their reaccreditation “their process took a lot longer” than the francophone group’s hearing into its eligibility for special funding. The francophone group’s eligibility was approved while the other groups had to go through several more steps and more hearings before getting their approvals in 2013.
Durand says the reaccreditation process for OFA, CFFO and NFU-O “might have been delayed for this year and all the way until next year.”
Wales agrees they are on a different hearing cycle now than the francophone farm group and their reaccreditation hearing will either be later in 2015 or early 2016.
L’Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens legally has the obligation to represent all French-speaking farmers in Ontario, which is about 2,000, Durand says. In addition to that requirement, the organization has about 450 farmers who pay a voluntary $15 symbolic membership fee. The group is dedicated to promoting the concerns of French-speaking farmers. It also offers training workshops in French and publishes a French agricultural newspaper, Agricom. BF