Recently I attended the summer meetings for the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Flying there and back, I looked out my plane’s window to see an endless patchwork of farm fields below. It’s an amazing sight to see and can easily give the impression that our massive agri-food sector must be doing incredibly well. While Canada’s diverse agri-food industry already contributes tens of billions to the country’s GDP, there are some incredible opportunities waiting for the entire country, if industry and government can work together for the greater good. Unfortunately, these opportunities are being held back by a series of current challenges facing our domestic food producers and processors; challenges most Canadians and politicians are largely unaware of.

First off, let me say that the current government in Ottawa, like others before it, has not prioritized the agri-food sector since it was first elected, even though there is increasing awareness of the enormous economic growth potential. Global predictions put the world’s population at 10B by 2050 and Canada is well situated to profit from growing global food demand. Yet our farmers cannot thrive without increased collaboration from governments across the country. While Canada already ranks amongst the top food producers in the world, we export a huge percentage of our raw goods for processing in other countries. We should instead be doing more of that here in Canada, where extra value could be generated. In her opening remarks, CFA President Mary Robinson spoke of climate change, supply chain problems, and farming sustainability as the sector’s biggest current challenges. She also articulated the fact that most Canadian farmers today don’t run their businesses singularly focused on the financial bottom line. Farmers are just as concerned as people outside the agri-food industry in terms of the environmental and social impacts of modern farming. Today, people working in agriculture must be technologically sophisticated and business savvy if they are to survive. Yet government continues to expect more from farmers which is causing frustration amongst many I spoke with.

Canada has had it pretty good for a long time when it comes to food security. Unlike other countries that have had to prioritize food production to feed their people, we have been blessed with ample land, fresh water, and reasonably decent growing seasons to produce more food than we need. Like most western developed countries, Canada has evolved from the agrarian focused economy it was more than 100 years ago. Currently, more than 85% of Canadians live in urban centres and cities, including most of the elected officials and government bureaucrats running our country.  While farming has become more technologically advanced, more and more Canadians live, work, and play within cities, so the disconnect between urban Canadians and the country’s shrinking number of farmers has never been greater. The CFA represents 190,000 farm families across the country, which is not an insignificant number, but it only represents about 2% of the total population. Yet 100% of Canadians rely daily on the produce grown and produced in every region of the country.

Modern day farming is already significantly greener than it was just a few years ago, let alone decades or centuries ago. New technology, coupled with farmers’ desire to increase their bottom line has greatly advanced farming efficiency, yet governments are demanding more. The biggest challenge currently, and one that came up repeatedly during the meetings, was government’s expectation that the industry significantly reduces its Green House Gas Emissions. And the biggest single government proposal that is increasing the ire of farmers everywhere is the suggestion that nitrogen use be cut by 30% by 2030. While other jurisdictions like the US and EU financially compensate their farmers for measures adopted to reduce GHGs, Canada does not. Farmers I spoke with are more than willing to do their part, yet one summed it up best by saying, “You can’t expect us to be green, if we are operating in the red”. There is only so far a business owner can be pushed before they decide it’s no longer viable to continue. With the average Canadian farmer nearing 60 years of age, government would be wise to work with the sector to encourage the next generation to stay engaged, as opposed to leaving it.  Labour shortages remain a serious threat to Canadian agriculture.

During the meetings I heard Canola growers speak about how their input costs had increased as much as 100% in the last year, primarily due to rapid inflation and supply chain issues. Cattle farmers spoke about how the country is losing 147,000 acres of pasture every year as some ranchers transition to other types of farming because incentives are higher. Pork producers spoke about their ongoing concerns with African Swine Flu and how it could devastate their businesses. Others spoke about the significant positive attributes modern farming is contributing today, such as dairy farms using biodigesters to reduce on-farm methane emissions, and the advanced sustainable practices employed by most farmers to help the environment.

The meetings wrapped up with a round table discussion that included CFA board members, producers from various commodities, Agricultural Ministers and staff from every province, as well as the federal government. Like all meetings that consist of a room full of Canadians, the conversations were cordial and polite and included repeated references to the sector’s potential if everyone just worked together. I’ve only been to a handful of these meetings, but that phrase is repeatedly used. There were consistent expressions of what some of the beneficial opportunities could be if the sector was fully prioritized by government – massive economic growth, job creation, and much needed rural economic development outside of our large cities which are increasingly congested and unaffordable for so many.

The federal government has been working towards a new 5-year Agricultural Policy Framework (APF) agreement and a wide variety of industry spokespeople were there to tell them that if the Ag sector is to remain a mainstay of the national economy, let alone grow, it needs help in various ways. Subsequently, the federal government released a statement announcing a new agreement has been signed with the provinces that will see an additional $500M in funding as part of the new APF to help offset climate change and emissions reduction programming. The feds also committed to increase the compensation rate for the current suite of business risk management programs from 70% to 80% to help farmers hit with unexpected losses. These announcements were welcomed by industry groups including the CFA, but much more needs to be done for the sector to reach its full potential.

Canada has long been known as a natural resource superpower. We have been blessed with a huge geography and for too long governments have overlooked agriculture for other industries such as energy, mining, and forestry. It’s time we all stop talking about the benefits of working together to grow a bigger agri-food sector and start making it happen. It’s time Canadians and politicians across the land recognize farmers as true stewards of the earth. And it’s time to work with them so Canada can take advantage of the incredible opportunities in agriculture, for the benefit of the entire country.

Peter Seemann

Peter has 20 years’ experience as a business owner and entrepreneur. He has been deeply involved in federal and provincial politics since 1993 and has earned an impressive reputation as a campaign manager and highly effective, “get things done” leader. Peter has his MBA in Executive Management from Royal Roads University, BC, graduating in 2008 with a specialization in Leadership.The focus of Grassroots is to bring a solid, real-world, business approach to government advocacy based on “Clarity – Consistency – Collaboration” designed to help businesses and associations get tangible support for their vision, mission and message.

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