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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
WORKING COLLECTIVELY AND EFFICIENTLY
The Ontario AgriCentre is co-housing many agricultural groups, providing a high profile for the industry and synergies for the tenants.
We all know the agriculture sector is affected by a greater number of pressures than ever before. Weather and pests have been joined by public scrutiny and environmental pressures - so it makes sense to become smarter about sharing resources.

In the recent past, "resources" has become a euphemism for money. However, in today's environment, it is a whole lot more than just money. Time and leadership have grown to be just as scarce as dollars. There are a few reasons for this, including:

  • the growing myriad of issues;
  • government has dramatically increased the number and extent of consultations on issues, to the point that some groups claim "consultation-itis";
  • consolidation among producers, so there are fewer people to share the workload.


Recently, there was an election held for the Canadian Wheat Board Directors. Compared to four years ago, the number of farmers eligible to vote in that election dropped by 25 percent. Although there are more reasons for this than just farm consolidation, it is still an eye-opening figure. That's certainly a compelling reason to consider ways to work more efficiently on issues.

Another reason is that large farmers come from a different generation. Once, the large successful farm families in a community had a culture of providing leadership. Now, farmers operating on acreages in excess of 10,000 acres are more likely to be focused on their own businesses. The size and the scale of these operations demand more management and marketing time from their owners. The result is there is less activism and volunteerism.

FOCUSING ON POLICY PRINCIPLES

That's why more groups are trying to find ways to operate on limited resources. The Grain Growers of Canada was founded a few years ago to allow a number of commodity groups to hire expertise in government relations in Ottawa. These are not groups that are provincial associations of a larger national body; these are disparate organizations with regional interests in everything from corn to canola. Still, they have found enough common ground to hire a team of government relations experts and base them in Canada's capital.

The Grain Growers of Canada have been incredibly effective at raising the profile of the crop sector at the federal government. Alone, the member groups were never as effective as they have been since they banded together. One of their most significant accomplishments in just a few years has been on trade issues. Without the Grain Growers, there would not be the understanding within government of the impact of foreign subsidies on Canadian grains and oilseed farmers. In part, this is because the Growers took the time to quantify the impact. The $1.3 billion annual trade injury has become a lightening bolt in their discussion and has encouraged the government to focus on the impact of foreign subsidies in global trade negotiations.

In another example, the Grain Growers of Canada helped build a coalition of producers, handlers, exporters and others to convince the government not to ratify the Biosafety Protocol. Given the enormous potential consequence on the global movement of oilseeds, it was important that the government not subject Canadian exporters to the liability risks set out in the international Biosafety Agreement. Cam Dahl, Grain Growers' then executive director, is convinced that without the efforts of the Grain Growers and the coalition, the government would have ratified the Protocol, not realizing the consequences on the ag sector.

Much of the policy work at the Grain Growers occurs by consensus and does not require a formal vote, proving that there is a lot of shared interest, according to Dahl. It does take a commitment to discussing issues and exploring options reports, though. Just the same, the Grain Growers have been effective at raising the perspective of their members and making a difference on policy issues.

One of the key reasons is that all these groups have varied interests but share common principles. These members want a grower-driven, competitive agricultural trading environment based on open markets. They are also interested in stimulating value-added processing and new R&D, as well as establishing stewardship programs for a safe food supply. The articulation and acceptance of these principles makes it easier to come to a policy conclusion because the members are starting on the same page.

SHARING INFRASTRUCTURE

Another initiative is bringing Ontario agricultural groups into the Ontario AgriCentre, a shared facility that helps them generate efficiencies in housing, such as shared boardrooms, lunchrooms, reception areas, etc. It will also provide a high profile presence for the industry and will more easily allow farm groups to interact with one another. The brain child of Peter Hannam, a farm leader for three decades, he and his partner have built the facility in Guelph, Ontario, and recruited the participation of many groups.

On top of that, Hannam has donated $10,000 from an award he was given for his dedication to volunteerism to build an interactive media center in the facility. It will allow these groups to more easily hold press conferences and live broadcasts, and share information
on agriculture.

There are already 11 groups signed up to move in when the facility opens in the fall, including high profile organizations such as the Ontario Corn Producers' Association, Ontario Soybean Growers, Ontario Wheat Producers' Marketing Board, and Ontario Federation of Agriculture. The building location will provide tenants with easy access to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food head office, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Ontario regional headquarters, the University of Guelph, and more than 70 ag-related companies and organizations.

VIRTUAL ORGANIZATIONS

These are great examples, and there are opportunities to create "virtual organizations" that can share resources and infrastructure. While working on the board of a children's rehabilitation hospital, I have had the opportunity to watch several service agencies for children with disabilities talk about how they could co-house themselves so that patients have a single location to visit for services. Now they are also talking about ways to share accounting, human resources and support staff teams. This builds efficiency for everyone but lets each organization hone in on its specific mandate.

It is the same for agricultural groups. Sharing not only support services but also government affairs, events management and communication specialists just makes sense. I see lots of organizations working on a shoestring, struggling to maintain member databases, sending out mediocre newsletters, missing public relations opportunities, and becoming exhausted by the work of putting together annual conventions, all because they can only afford one part-time staffer.

Co-resourcing annual meetings, newsletters, press conferences, and lobby efforts are also great ways to work together. One large contract with a hotel and one registration desk will be easier to manage and save more costs than three separately organized meetings.

It is all about focusing on what needs to get done. In the case of agricultural organizations, they exist to provide services to members or to change agricultural policy. Territorialism about infrastructure undermines the work that needs to be done. It is the outcomes from these groups, such as better legislation, regulatory change, stewardship initiatives or improved public approval of agriculture, that need to be measured. To achieve that, agricultural groups will need to tap into pools of expertise in a cost-effective way. That means working smart and working together. AM

Robynne Anderson is president of Issues Ink, which publishes R&D: Reach and Discover and other agricultural magazines and newsletters.


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