Ahead of the Heard
The agriculture industry is famous for being one of the most highly politicized sectors of the economy. It’s mainly due to the nature of the business and the independent slant of those involved at every level – the only common factor is that they are in the food production business. The nature part is due to most producers growing or processing a specific product or commodity. In many cases that puts some of them in competitive positions and others in a buyer/seller tension. That puts their vested interests in conflict, which each sector feels that only they can best represent. The result is a plethora of divergent agricultural organizations.
It gets worse of course, within sectors there are competing organizations all claiming to represent the same producer. For instance in Alberta at any one time there are over 20 groups representing various cattle producer interests. In the crop sector there are specific groups representing almost every cereal, oilseed and pulse. Some of these groups then create interprovincial groups who then create national crop production or marketing groups. Add to that general agricultural groups like provincial and national federations of agriculture and the National Farmers Union.
It boggles the mind, no wonder governments are bewildered as to who they should talk to on agriculture issues. To resolve that matter, governments instigate overarching advisory commodity committees and roundtable discussion groups. That resolves the inclusion process and some of the politics, but they can be unwieldy and have difficulty making decisions on a consensus basis. Many times that suits governments just fine, as they use any gridlock as an excuse to take arbitrary actions on agricultural issues.
What all these groups have in common is that their representatives tend to be many of the same old war horses. The problem they face is that finding new leadership blood is a difficult process. That’s not unique to agriculture, but that sector has some growing problems when it comes to turning over industry leadership. The big concern is that there are fewer producers willing or available to become either elected or appointed to leadership positions. That’s the result of ongoing consolidation which has seen producer numbers decline, and the lack of time by those still in the business. Even when a producer becomes involved in an organization, many become frustrated by the growing complexity of issues and the never ending byzantine politics that surround any resolution. The other problem with declining numbers is that elected positions can get filled by acclamation or by railroading the unwilling. Some times that results in folks who have little time, skills or understanding in dealing with issues. That makes it tough for those that are more activist as they end up doing most of the work.
To deal with the disappearing leadership issue a number of organizations have initiated training and promotion programs to bring in the next generation of industry leaders. That’s a good step but it’s a long process and it depends on the availability and willingness of young leadership hopefuls. The milk and beef cattle industries in particular have created robust young leadership programs. It’s a good template for other commodity groups. But training is one thing – actual participation is usually another matter. The point is organizations need to include young leaders in the actual decision making process. What about appointing an inspired leadership hopeful onto the board of directors. I expect that would give such folks an incentive to continue following their leadership journey. As admirable as training and development is if there is nothing to go to after going through that process, that young person may be lost to some other endeavour.
Another problem is that many producers continue to re-elect old war horses simply because of personality and experience – it may be democratic but it frustrates ambitious young folks and generation turnover. Organizations like the National Farmers Union resolve that situation by formally having youth delegates and directors as a permanent part of their governance structure. Many of those young folks continue on into other leadership roles in the organization. That same process is successfully used by the mainstream political parties. Finally perhaps our agriculture colleges and ag faculties at Universities need to offer much more robust and extensive courses in the many aspects and roles of ag industry leadership. Maybe ag organizations should get involved with that education process. If our educational institutions could get students educated and enthused about participating, it could be a much easier process to replace leadership war horses in agriculture organizations.