FARMERS must bring far more to the table to have any influence on decision makers in a world where governments and societies want environmental and social guarantees, not just economic outcomes.
Experienced agri-food policy strategist Tyler McCann, managing director of the 'think network' Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute and a cattle producer from western Quebec, says traditional farm advocacy methods are no longer cutting it.
Speaking virtually at the Australian Farm Institute's conference this week, Mr McCann said farm lobby groups must have far more back-up than ever before, in the form of both facts, analysis and research but also a broader coalition of people standing alongside them.
He urged farm leaders to advocate 'not just harder but smarter' in forming relationships with decision-makers, understanding the mechanisms of how modern-day policy setting worked and the full gamut of solutions they had to provide.
Mr McCann presented a case study of two different approaches to advocacy around climate change in his country to make his point.
One was lead by an alliance of farmers made up of age-old organisations like the cattlemen's association, while the other was led by a group called Farmers for Climate Solutions which had a far more diverse and left-of-centre membership.
The first group had three 'asks' in the lead-up to the 2021 Federal Government budget: maintain and expand the carbon tax exemption for farmers, ensure the offset criteria is easily accessible and channel the money collected by the tax into emissions reduction projects on-farm.
"In contrast, the second group had a six-point plan worth hundreds of millions to significantly decrease emissions from agriculture," Mr McCann explained.
"Those strategies were around doing more with less nitrogen, increasing cover cropping, normalising rotational grazing, protecting wetlands and trees on-farm and powering farms with green energy.
"They had a costed platform and ambitious targets for how much emissions reduction could be achieved."
The second group saw almost word-for-word their policies reflected in the budget, with millions allocated to their projects, Mr McCann reported.
The government did not exempt farmers from the carbon tax, although a rebate for on-farm climate projects was provided.
"What this shows is the old ways aren't good enough anymore," Mr McCann said.
"Governments will act but they are looking at more than traditional economics and the message about exempting farmers because of competitiveness didn't cut it."
The scene had shifted and farmers are having a hard time adjusting to this new world of advocacy. Many traditional farm groups were responding, often late, rather than being proactive, Mr McCann argued.
"Our farm population is shrinking, and the divide between farmers and urbanites has never been more significant," he said.
"Rural Canada is becoming increasingly conservative and urban Canada increasingly liberal. The reality is the liberals can win without votes in rural Canada.
"At the same time, decision makers are becoming fewer. And the discussion has gone far beyond the traditional 'asks' of farmers."
As a result, farmers were seeing fewer results.
"At the outset of COVID, our farmers asked for a big emergency fund to support food security. It was met with a far smaller support package than sought."
Farmers must move their conversations beyond politicians, to the broader community - think outreach rather than lobby.
And perhaps activism has to make a return.
"We've had a decade of good times that have reduced the need for farmer activism but it is starting to come back again as farmers have to work harder to get the attention of policy makers," Mr McCann said.
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