Boersen raises grain farmers concerns to Perth County council over climate survey

·12 min read

PERTH COUNTY – Josh Boersen, Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) director for District 9, Perth County, appeared as a delegation to county council on Dec. 16 to discuss a survey conducted during the development of a report to develop a county Greenhouse Gas Reduction plan.

“I’m just going to stick to the portions that affect agriculture directly as I guess,” he said. “As a director for GFO here representing Perth County, it seems prudent to come before county as a whole and not just my municipal council. (I) thank (Coun.) Daryl (Herlick) for prodding me along to make sure this message came through.”

Boersen said his biggest take ways from the survey was that there was a lot of leading information in it and the summary presented to council.

“I don’t understand where council can go with this information as it pertains to agriculture,” he said. “A lot of the survey questions kind of surrounded how are we going to decrease emissions from farm vehicles and that’s certainly a noble thing. How this council is going to have any influence over that decision kind of strikes me (as) odd. We’re already being impacted by federal and provincial regulations to this effect and while we can always do better in the county, farmers are probably… leading, or if not, very close to leading the charge on our environmental footprint and impacts.”

Boersen previously appeared before Perth East council and he told them that if the plan being developed intends to tick a box or to fulfil a requirement of a higher level of government for funding he can understand that.

“I understand that process,” he said. “I don’t agree with that. I think there are other issues further up in the political chain that needs dealing with when it comes to that regard but as a municipal government, if your hands are tied I understand why you might have gone through the motion.”

He suggested that the survey demographics were largely urban and heavily influenced by people who may have a very poor understanding of agriculture.

“For them to say one of the key takeaways in the survey was about converting farm vehicles to electrified farm vehicles – the briefing or background said this is only a difficulty level of four to six out of 10,” said Boersen. “The ability to electrify farm vehicles in the short term here is going to be decades out in a practical manner in the way that we currently farm. That’s not to say large steps are not maybe being made especially in the smaller robotics field which may be the way farming does end up going in the future and impeding that growth is certainly not something we are out to do but certainly at the same time you can’t tie the hands of the farmers in our county here in the interim until we get to that point where that type of technology is available.”

He said he doesn’t see a place for a municipal government to be involved in that process.

“There should be no taxpayer in this county that is obligated to pay for improvements on our farm, in my opinion,” said Boersen. “We do our best as always and try to improve as we go and we are learning. This takes time… We’re making changes on our farm on an annual basis, you know, slowly but surely trying to learn… We’ve started to certainly choose our steps carefully moving forward. So this is going to take five, 10, 15, 20 years to learn in all cases and all things.”

He said the Perth County grain farmers tried to get in touch with the first climate change coordinator hired by the county, Rebecca Garlick, but it was difficult to find a time all eight delegates could sit down for a meeting.

“That wasn’t possible,” said Boersen.

A new climate change coordinator, Amara Kartick, was hired and Boersen heard that there was an official proposal in front of council. He felt this proposal had received very little input from the agricultural community.

Warden Jim Aitcheson assured Boersen that the process is “truly in its infant stage” but he said he agreed with a lot of the comments made by the delegation.

“What we have is a basis to start from and we can build on that,” said Coun. Walter McKenzie. “One of my other comments is that by working together we can achieve a lot. I think that just bashing what we have is not going to solve anything but by working together we can achieve a bit. You are familiar, I assume, with Brendan Byrne… are you familiar with the Guelph statement that came out a month ago?”

Boersen asked McKenzie to elaborate.

“I have highlights of it,” said McKenzie. “The purpose of it is there are five priorities I believe. The first priority is tackling climate change and environmental protection to support greenhouse gas emission reductions and the long term viability of the sector while positioning producers and processors to seize economic opportunities involving consumer demands. The statement… acknowledges the continuous work done by farmers to food while maintaining Canada’s natural resources.”

“Canadian farmers have always been good stewards of the land and have a solid track record of sustainable agriculture with sound management practices, innovation and new technologies,” he continued. “There was a quote issued by your chair of the GFO, ‘The priority areas in this new policy framework shared by the FPT align with grain farming and our priorities as grain farmers of Ontario. We look forward to working with all levels of government to ensure the future of grain farming,’ said Brendan Byrne, chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario. ‘Grain farmers in Ontario are part of the solution when it comes to protecting the environment with the wide number of practices they have adapted to promote fit land, stewardship and their willingness to be early adopters in innovation to help protect the land.’ I just circled back to my original comment. I think if we work together with this. We can end up with something that will be worthwhile but to sit back and just find fault with what’s going on with this survey… I don’t think it is going to achieve anything. I just put that out there for you. It looks to me like what you are advocating and what the Grain Farmers of Ontario, the provincial body are advocating are maybe at odds with one another.”

Boersen disagreed.

“What I was suggesting was that this report came to council incomplete or this survey was undertaken without wholesome input from our organization,” he said. “We attempted to make contact several times to act collaboratively… and we were unable to do so prior to this being presented.”

Boersen said the process, which started in May 2019, feels rushed.

“This feels hurried along because we couldn’t even get involved in the process and the situation we find ourselves in with COVID, it has certainly not made this any easier, but at the same time I would agree with you realistically that we need more consultation and we need to work together,” he said. “We also can’t be in the position where it becomes adversarial because that’s our only second course of action. It wasn’t undertaken in a consulting manner from the outset. That’s where my concerns lie.”

Coun. Todd Kasenberg said he thought there are a few things worth noting.

“The first, of course, is that the survey was but one of many tools… used in the generation of the background information in the report,” he said. “Certainly part of the research that was done included evaluating the… information of the various groups and organizations involved in agriculture in Ontario and so if you feel that the Perth County Grain Farmers have a different perspective… that probably should have been included in the website and… materials that were consulted with the Grain Farmers of Ontario. Further, in terms of that consultation, the Perth County Federation of Agriculture was consulted throughout the project and that was perceived to be a reasonable approach to find a local voice.”

Kasenberg said he did not disagree with Boersen that there may have been logistics problems and more could have been done.

“At the same time, there is a climate crisis and work is being done and needed to be done,” he said. “I have but one question for you… The report that came to us has exactly two recommendations about and for agriculture. Which of those, or are both of those, are objectionable to you and the organization?”

Kasenberg also asked for clarification whether Boersen was speaking for the GFO or just the local Perth County grain farmers.

Boersen asked what the two recommendations regarding agriculture in the report were.

“The first is that agriculture in Perth County be more broadly consulted and the second is that we initiate a clean water project in the county,” said Kasenberg.

“There are no objections to those proposals in the plan but is there further information to come because that was not undertaken in the survey,” said Boersen. “I don’t disagree that those are noble things to do, but why was the other information even included then? What’s the purpose?”

Kasenberg noted that he is not part of the coordinating committee dealing with the climate change coordinator.

“But I believe… the broad purpose was to explore for possible options that are available across all of the sectors in our economy in Perth County and to collect insight and information and even ideas about how that could work,” he said. “I would suggest that… the first recommendation is pretty fundamental to what you asked (for) which is more consultation, more engagement with citizens, with the groups who are involved in the day-to-day of interacting with the environment in ways positive or negative.”

Deputy Warden Rhonda Ehgoetz said they need to look at why they hired a climate change coordinator in the first place.

“Maybe I have the wrong understanding,” she said. “We want to improve what we are doing so the municipality took it on to hire someone to come in and look at all this. The goal here isn’t for the municipality to tell farmers what to do or when to do it. I think the goal here was to find out what we are all doing… the municipalities, the farmers, everybody is slowly doing something but what we can improve upon… I don’t think that the municipalities are going to stand over the farmers and tell the farmers what to do. I think that’s where the misconception is here … Do I have the wrong understanding of this?”

“You kind of hit the nail on the head,” answered Aitcheson. “This is the beginning and we’re not here to tell farmers how to farm.”

Ehgoetz also suggested that the grain farmers could form a committee and council could offer support.

Coun. Daryl Herlick said the plan could lead to policy regarding farming.

“I mean look, everybody knows that when you need to control somebody you do it through policy and government,” he said. “It’s the oldest technique in the book. And to say that couldn’t happen here is wrong. We know this already with conservation authorities, granted some was good but… blanket policy has an effect sometimes and that isn’t what we need… The grain farmers did reach out and to say that the grain farmers are trying to trash and not collaborate and work together, that’s insulting actually. I’m kind of dismayed as a councillor that that comment happened. I’m sorry.”

Aitcheson reminded council that the report is a draft, not policy.

“Nothing is completely cut in stone yet by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

Aitcheson asked if there were any more comments from councillors and nobody else indicated they wanted to discuss any more.

“There were some things in that report that I agreed with completely,” he said. “There were some things in that report I was, I’ll be honest, not that satisfied with but it’s a work I progress. I think the one thing… and I’m going to say this as a farmer myself – agriculture tends to take the brunt for water issues in the province of Ontario. It’s always farmer runoff, it’s always this, it’s always that and… I’ve said it to the Ministry of the Environment – as long as cities are allowed to do legal bypasses of raw sewage into the rivers, which empty into lakes, you can institute all the clean water things you want to do in agriculture but we are a fraction of the problem. It has to be in a complete encompassing of all cities, towns and agriculture, not just agriculture.”

Boersen said he’d like to leave the discussion with the fact that they all need to work together and move forward on a consultancy basis rather than an adversarial basis.

“Believe me, it’s a lot easier to work from the back end than it is to try to come at something from head-on,” he said.

Aitcheson returned the conversation to Ehgoetz’s mention of an agricultural committee.

“There is one,” he said. “They have just never met. I stand to be corrected but I’m sure we have an agricultural committee, it has just never met.”

CAO Lori Wolfe said that was true.

Coun. Robert Wilhelm said it had been at least five years since that committee had met.

“We will do our best to make it a truly collaborative process from this point on,” said Aitcheson.

Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner

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