by SUSAN MANN
Ontario’s farm business registration process has ground to a halt leaving about 5,000 farmers unable to get the business registration number they need to access government programs.
The province’s agriculture ministry is concerned about those farmers who can’t get their number until the farm organizations have brought themselves into compliance with the Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act and “we are working on options to ensure that farmers aren’t disadvantaged,” ministry spokesperson Susan Murray says by email.
Mark Cripps, spokesman for Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin, says by email one option the ministry is considering is removing the requirement for farmers to have a farm business registration number.
“We can’t be in a position, moving forward, where farmers are vulnerable to this type of unfortunate situation,” he says, noting he was speaking on behalf of the minister. The current link between general farm organizations and farm business registration “appears to have significant risks for farmers accessing government programs.”
Dissolving the link is another option. Cripps confirms by telephone the options are being considered in the context of long-term change rather than as a short-term measure to alleviate the current situation. However, short-term measures are also needed to deal with the present circumstances, he says. “It’s not business as usual,” he says referring to the way the three farm groups have depicted their operations since they’ve lost accreditation.
Neil Currie, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, calls the description of the risk “a bit strong.” He says the OFA anticipates accreditation will happen “in the very near future, subject to having the Tribunals convened as quickly as possible.”
“I think it’s a one-off event and it’s not that serious a risk,” he adds. “Hopefully it’s a one-time, one-off. Certainly not anything that we saw coming. But we’ll deal with it in the very near future and move on.”
Ann Slater, coordinator of the National Farmers Union agrees, noting all three of the province’s general farm organizations met with provincial ministry and Agricorp staff. “My understanding was that the favoured approach was to have the organizations start to work to get accredited as soon as possible,” she says. McMeekin was not present at the meetings, she notes.
The farmers’ plight arises from Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeals Tribunals May 23 decision to deny accreditation to Ontario’s three main general farm organizations: the OFA, the NFU and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. A fourth organization, Union des cultivateurs franco-ontariens, was accredited but receives most of its funding from the other farm organizations instead of directly from farmers.
Under current legislation, farmers can’t obtain their farm business registration numbers until they have paid an accredited farm organization “and there aren’t any right now,” Currie says. They need the number to access the provincial farm property tax rebate that enables them to pay 25 per cent of the municipal residential rate on their farmland.
The number is also needed for a variety of government programs such as the Ontario Vineyard Improvement, Wildlife Damage Compensation and a variety under Growing Forward, including the Canada-Ontario Farm Stewardship, Business Development for Farm Business, Food Safety and Traceability Initiative and Farm Biosecurity. The wildlife compensation and Growing Forward are federal/provincial programs.
Murray says the registration numbers issued before May 23 are valid for the 2013 farm property tax class.
The vast majority of Ontario farmers, 90 per cent, applied for and received their farm business registration number by this year’s March 1 deadline.
Farm groups use the registration money to lobby and work on behalf of farmers.
Murray says farmers can continue submitting their applications to Agricorp, which will hold them until the situation is resolved.
Along with putting a halt to the distribution of registration fees, the Tribunals decision also means no money is flowing to the organizations, Murray adds.
Ontario federation president Mark Wales says they’ve received most of their money for this year already because most farmers have already registered and were sent their membership card.
He says they want to have the matter sorted out and get their accreditation back this year. “We’re busy making the small changes that we have to make to be able to reapply and get accredited right away.”
The federation considered launching a judicial review of the Tribunals’ decision but “discarded the idea,” Wales says. Similarly the other two farm groups also don’t have plans to apply for a judicial review of the Tribunals’ decision.
Lorne Small, president of the Christian Farmers, says farm groups have to apply for accreditation as if they were a new organization because there isn’t any wording in the legislation for accrediting groups once they’ve been unaccredited. But there isn’t much difference in the process, he notes.
Small says it’s true the farm groups can’t get farmers’ registration money now but most Christian Farmers members have already re-registered for this year. “Had we been reaccredited we weren’t expecting many additional memberships coming in now,” he says, noting their members tend to pay early. The invoices went out in January and their members paid within 30 days.
The deadline for the refund applications was the end of March so most of the refunds have also already been processed, he says.
Christian Farmers is now preparing to apply for accreditation and it’s planning to ensure “we follow the exact wording in the legislation,” Small explains.
Slater says they too are moving ahead and asking for a new accreditation hearing. But the NFU has extra work to do on membership and payment matters compared to the other groups. “We’re just going to have to go back through and show how we meet all of the criteria,” she says, noting at their last annual meeting in March there were some bylaw amendments that led to changes in how the organization runs.
Slater says she hopes the situation will be cleared up before the next round of registrations “but that’s not really in my control.” It’s the appeals Tribunals that schedules the accreditation hearings and makes the decisions and “we don’t know how long that decision might take.”
Small predicts they’ll know long before the next round of registrations starts in January 2013 if Christian Farmers is accredited or not. BF (With files from Better Farming staff)