New Farmers Need New Government

Posted by on October 17, 2015

By Alex Fletcher.

There isn’t much talk about agriculture and the farm succession crisis this election.   The political calculation seems to be that agriculture is a rural issue and rural issues don’t matter because they don’t swing votes.   The assumption being that urban voters, who make up the majority, don’t understand or don’t care much about agriculture.

But Agriculture isn’t just another special interest group and it’s certainly not just a “rural issue”.  It’s the heart of our food system and part of the backbone of our economy.  Yet its under strain and suffering from neglect as is indicated by the decline of the young farmer demographic, which has dropped by 69% over the last 20 year census period.

This spring, along with several other young, new farmers from across Canada, I traveled to Parliament to meet with MPs. We wanted to share our experiences as new farmers and discuss what could be done to reverse the rapid decline of the young farmer population and support a new generation of farmers committed to growing ecologically sound, climate friendly, healthy food and building strong healthy communities.

We had contacted all four national political parties to arrange meetings.  We received positive responses from each of the parties…except for one.   We met with the Ag critics from both the NDP and Liberal parties, Malcolm Allen and Mark Eyking, as well as the NDP Deputy Ag Critic, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, former NDP Ag Critic Alex Atamanenko and former Liberal Ag critic Wayne Easter.  They were generous with their time and seemed genuinely interested in and sympathetic to our stories about the struggles to secure tenure of farmland, access finance, and obtain the technical knowledge and expertise necessary to run a farm business.  They were also supportive and encouraging of our interest and engagement in the political process.  It was a valuable learning opportunity and an empowering experience.

The Green party also got back to us.  Due to the archaic first past the post electoral system, which results in their underrepresentation in parliament, we were not able to find a time that would fit with the busy schedule of their few MPs.  We appreciated their response and effort to accommodate though.

The Conservative Party’s response was strikingly different.  They did not try to arrange a meeting with us, not even with one of their staff members.  They didn’t even pretend to care; they did not bother to reply to us.

I’m not sure why they ignored us, so I can only speculate:

Perhaps it is because the Conservative government is ashamed of its track record of policies that disregard family farms and undermine Canadian food sovereignty.  For example, they derailed the farmer owned and operated Wheat Board, they gave more control over seeds to Monsanto and their like by introducing UPOV 91, they shut down prison farms, they closed the prairie shelter belt program and defunded the PFRA Community  Pastures, they signed the Trans Pacific Partnership which undermines the Canadian supply managed dairy system.  They have aggressively pursued resource extraction projects to the detriment of the water and soil that farmers depend on.   They have ignored climate change while farmers have faced increased flooding, droughts and extreme weather.   

Or maybe they just don’t think young farmers matter.  The Conservative government has put all their agricultural eggs in one vulnerable, export-oriented policy basket.  Their policies are aimed at expanding the very largest, industrial farms and have done nothing to support small-scale, ecologically oriented, direct-market farms; the kind of farming that is attracting many new farmers today.  As indicated by the recent National New Farmer Coalition survey, most new farmers did not grow up on a farm so face considerable barriers to entry and therefore require targeted support.  

Or perhaps they pre-judged us as being ‘radicals’ because we are members of the National Farmers Union.   The NFU has repeatedly opposed and resisted the Conservative agriculture agenda and boldly defended family farms and sustainable agriculture. It seems the Conservative government tends towards a strategy of ignoring, undermining, or auditing those who oppose them. Perhaps it is part of their bigger strategy of being opaque, hiding in the closet and not participating outside of their controlled political environment. 

Whatever their reason for ignoring us, at least we aren’t alone.  As part of it's Eat Think Vote election campaign, Food Secure Canada asked each of the parties a series of questions including if they “agree that more federal supports are needed for new farmers who face significant barriers in accessing capital, land and training?”  The Liberals, NDP and Greens (and Bloc) all responded affirmatively.  Not surprisingly, the Conservative party did not respond to any of their questions.

It seems clear that new farmers will benefit from a new government. All of the opposition parties seem to be more conscious and concerned about the challenges new farmers face.  However, digging a bit deeper, there are some notable differences between the agricultural policy platforms being proposed. 

The Green Party and NDP both have articulated comprehensive agriculture platforms that get beyond the limited scope of treating agriculture simply as a commodity machine for export markets.  They talk about local food, sustainable agriculture, the environment, health and nutrition.  They offer a vision of agriculture that is most closely aligned with my vision and values and that of other young farmers I know.  Notably, the NDP’s platform includes a specific section on easing entry barriers for new and young farmers and ensuring access to land and capital. 

The Liberal platform is remarkable for its brevity and lack of vision. At a mere 204 words it doesn’t reveal much.  There is nothing in it specific to young farmers.

This election we need to elect a new government, one that is sympathetic and responsive to new farmers.  Once formed, it will be imperative that new farmers are vocal and active in demanding the support we need to grow a new generation of farmers and build a sustainable, healthy and just food system.  We know what it is like to be ignored; we need to be ready for our chance to be heard. 

Alex Fletcher farms in Metchosin on Vancouver Island, BC. He is the NFU Youth President.