A tractor harvesting a crop in early morning. Image: Naseem Buras/Unsplash

While voting is important, the mobilization that occurs between elections is actually just as important.

The Liberal Party has formed another minority government, perhaps giving the federal NDP new energy as it tries to leverage the power and strategy of its 25 elected Members. What is  absolutely clear when assessing the percentage of the popular vote garnered by each party is the drastic need for electoral reform lest the voting public become even more cynical in future (voter turnout was at a mere 59 per cent in this election –– a historic low). That issue didn’t even make headlines in this election.

Throughout the past several weeks of electioneering, I did not hear the words agriculture or farmer or family farm come through on the national stage via debates, campaign releases, or other newsers.

Meanwhile, each party did include platform commitments related to agriculture. The election is over you say! True — but those commitments are on paper and should be used to remind elected Members of Parliament of their campaign commitments while on the hustings. Some organizations have provided summaries. This campaign “promise” round-up from the National Farmers Union could come in handy in future for those advocating on issues related to the future of family farms, food security and sovereignty, and related climate change issues.

One of the issues that has gained momentum in 2021, in part due to the income fragility of this ongoing pandemic, is a guaranteed annual income — also known as a guaranteed livable basic income. A commitment to this pillar was clear in the NDP platform but not mentioned at all in the Liberal platform.

A basic annual income has a very clear connection to food production in this country and without one, we are jeopardizing our ability to support local, sustainable, food systems.

A recent report published by Ontario Region 3 of the National Farmers’ Union makes the important link between the need for farm labour and a basic livable income.

Reframing the Farm Labour Crisis is based on a survey of more than 700 Ontario farmers and includes more than a dozen solid recommendations to encourage a livable wage for farm labour on family and smaller farms. This detailed report covers temporary farm labour, local farm labour, training and support for those interested in working on family farms and programs to support those interested in producing food more generally.

Again, the pandemic has shown just how fragile our homegrown food production systems are. Included in the report is a call for basic income to ensure a fair wage for farm labour and also explains why family farm labourers need such a basic income guarantee — as well as access to Employment Insurance and universal paid sick days — to allow them a sustainable livelihood from farm work. It is a report filled with substantial issues.

A summary which leads into the report’s recommendations states:

“Ontario’s small to mid-sized farms are robust agricultural job creators. In fact, the Farm Labour Project found that farms under 70 acres were more likely to be employing Ontarians than their larger counterparts. These modest farms are also the knowledge incubators for the next generation of farmers. Supporting small and mid-sized farm hiring, training, and retention practices will be vital to resolving the skilled-labour shortage in the agricultural sector. Similarly, creating viable conduits to farm ownership for seasoned farm workers through land-linking, land-sharing and/or co-operative opportunities will be crucial to offset soaring land prices and ensure there are successors for our aging population of farm operators. However, without living wages/incomes we are unlikely to attract enough Ontarians willing to acquire the skills and dedicate their lives to agricultural production.”

Interestingly the report also includes a recommendation on the creation of co-operatives:

Support Co-operative Initiatives: Less than 5% of farms surveyed were co-operatives, but almost 13% would consider forming a cooperative. Over 48% of workers were interested in co-operative farming opportunities. Given the financial constraints on farm operators and staff, it is recommended that farm organizations work closely with Local Food and Farm Co-ops (LFFC) to support farmers wishing to start or transition to co-operative models.

So now — as the newly elected Members of Parliament are trying to find their seats and footing, it is these types of reports that they should be digging into. We need many MPs thinking about food production and post-pandemic models or programs — not just those responsible for the agriculture file. Farming and food production encompasses many issues related to various aspects of our lives, from seed, pesticides, land use, labour and young workers, training, climate change and yes, even co-operatives.

These are links that need to be strengthened post-voting day. Food sovereignty through local agriculture is a good place to start.

In July, the Conversion to Co-operatives Project published a report on the importance of co-operatives given that so many of Canada’s small and medium-sized business owners are ready to retire. The pandemic spurred earlier retirements in some cases. The report is based on a survey of more than 300 small-business owners from across Canada. Family farms can be categorized as such and are definitely feeling the pressure of succession planning given that well over half of Canada’s family farmers are set to retire within the next 10 years.

Supporting and encouraging co-operatives in any sector, including agriculture, can help to create stability, loyalty, employment and a workable alternative to succession planning. I would add that it may well be a good model for a post-pandemic society which has suffered from the ups and downs of an unstable economy and a major weakening of small businesses.

Given the need for farm labour, for support for young workers, and for support for small family farms or businesses related to agriculture, etc., these two reports provide good reason for a hard knock on the doors of MPs from across the country.

As noted above — there is lots of work to be done between elections on programs such as basic incomes and the creation of co-operatives. As the MPs find their desks we can help by making sure their footing is placed on solid workable alternatives.

The work has just begun.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image credit: Naseem Buras/Unsplash

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Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...