New markets, new crops key to survival of ag industry

Ask any farmer and the chances are he/she will tell you things just aren’t the way they used to be. And according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, they never will be again.
That was the gist of the message OFA president Ron Bonnett delivered to the Rainy River Federation of Agriculture at its annual spring banquet in Emo on Friday night.
Lower commodity prices, increasing government regulation, and the “mad cow” crisis have combined to push many in the industry to the brink.
“There are higher stress levels [in the agriculture industry] now than I’ve ever seen before,” Bonnett told a packed banquet hall at the Emo Legion.
Much, but not all, of the pressure is political, with some of it being internally generated and some from foreign sources, he noted. U.S. subsidies on such crops as corn, soybeans, and wheat, for instance, have driven prices to record lows.
Like the U.S. border closing to Canadian cattle, Bonnett said this, too, is a result of politics.
But we can’t blame everything on the Americans, Bonnett stressed, arguing federal and provincial legislation also is hampering agriculture’s efforts to cope with existing market conditions.
He pointed to ongoing legislation such as the Nutrient Management Act as major contributors to tough conditions on the farm.
“Ongoing legislation and regulations need to be addressed,” Bonnett remarked. “Nutrient management planning must be more flexible to reflect different areas and issues, as well as their needs.”
Another area of concern for Bonnett was the lack of knowledge on the part of the general public regarding exactly what goes into the food on their tables—and the true cost of putting it there.
Because of that, consumers may think they will have to pay more in order for farmers to make a decent living. That, said Bonnett, is simply not the case.
“Consumers don’t need to pay more [for food],” he reasoned. “Farmers need a bigger piece of the total cost of food.”
Farmers currently realize little of the total cost to the consumer and until that changes, they will continue to struggle to make ends meet.
“When you leave a tip at a restaurant, it often amounts to more than the farmer was paid for that food,” Bonnett charged.
But realizing real change and real improvement in the industry will require people to rethink their strategies. Bonnett suggested the future in agriculture will lie not in traditional crops and markets, but in new ones yet to be created.
And that, he said, will require considerable research—some of which is already underway.
“The future [of agriculture] is not in food,” he predicted. “The future is in bio-fuels.”
Bonnett said he sees a huge potential market for such crops as corn to produce alcohol and possibly even hemp to produce bio-diesel. In addition, we no longer can afford to be tied to one major market for our products because it makes us too vulnerable.
“We found with BSE that being dependent on one market makes us very vulnerable,” he remarked.
Bonnett did not dismiss the role of government safety nets—at least until the new markets are found. But ultimately, the farmer is faced with finding those niche markets for such products as organic beef and bio-fuels.
There also were a number of suggestions from the floor that Bonnett promised to raise with the OFA and Queen’s Park.
One person recommended that since so many farmers in the district rely to a great extent on off-farm income to make ends meet, they should be allowed to write off a greater percentage of that income.
Another wanted to accelerate the depreciation rate on the purchase of new equipment, as is the case in the U.S.
Ultimately, Bonnett’s message was one of optimism. He said with a few concessions from the government and some creative thinking on the part of farmers, the future will be better than the present.
“We have the ability to compete in world markets,” he enthused. “It’s just a matter of going out there and getting it.”
Prior to Bonnett’s address, RRFA president Trish Neilson formally took over from outgoing president Bernie Zimmerman, then both of them presented this year’s Bill Gibson Award to James and Robert Gibson.
Robert was absent, so James accepted the award on behalf of both of them.