by SUSAN MANN
Ontario farmers without a farm business registration number may soon be temporarily exempt from needing one for next year, says Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin.
The minister says by email he’s working with Finance Minister Dwight Duncan “to make the necessary interim amendments to ensure that farmers remain eligible for the Farm Property Tax Class rate for the 2013 tax year.”
He says he’s also directed ministry staff to take the necessary actions to ensure that farmers who are unable to obtain a valid farm business registration number for the 2012 program year continue having access to certain federal/provincial cost-shared programs, such as the Wildlife Damage Compensation program. Those programs require farmers to have the farm business number to be eligible to participate.
Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario president Lorne Small says there are five to 10 programs that require farmers to have the number.
McMeekin says they’re moving ahead with an Order-in-Council that will likely be in place by the end of this month to exempt farmers without a number from needing one for 2013. He stresses this is an interim measure. “It is the ministry’s hope the general farm organizations will take the necessary steps to be accredited.”
An Order-in-Council is an administrative decision made by the Ontario government’s Cabinet. It isn’t legislation that is put to a vote of all MPPs in Ontario’s Legislature.
If one or all of the general farm organizations gain accreditation, the Order-in-Council won’t be needed, McMeekin says. But the ministry wants to ensure farmers without a number “aren’t unnecessarily penalized by the current situation.”
As part of the Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act, farmers must register annually with Agricorp and pay a $195 plus HST fee. The farmer directs the $195 portion to one of the three previously accredited provincial general farm organizations – Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and National Farmers Union, Ontario. After registering and paying the fee, farmers can ask the group they selected to receive their money for a refund. The number stays valid for the year even if a farmer gets a refund.
The farm business registration process ground to a halt May 23 after the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal didn’t reaccredit the three general farm groups. The groups need to get reaccredited every three years.
In July new hearings were held and the groups are waiting to hear the Tribunal’s decision from that process. But since the July hearings were held the Tribunal has asked the groups to outline their ideas on what the words ‘member’ and ‘membership’ mean.
The Tribunal said at the July hearings it would try to render a decision within 30 days.
Lorne Small, Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario president, says the legislation written in 1993 uses words “and the last Tribunal wasn’t sure that the meaning of the words were consistent.”
Mark Wales, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, says they submitted written comments on the definition of a member this past Thursday or Friday. “This is one of those pieces of legal terminology the act’s not clear on.”
Small and Wales both agree it’s unlikely the Tribunal will hand down its decision this week, which will be 30 days from when the hearings were held. Wales says “the latest wrinkle is they’ve asked everybody to submit their thoughts on the definition of a member.”
All three farm groups and the agriculture ministry have been given until Aug. 24 to submit their written comments.
Farmers need a farm business registration number to access a number of provincial government programs and ones the province cost-shares with the federal government. In particular, farmers need the number to get the provincial farm property tax rate that enables them to pay 25 per cent of the municipal residential tax rate on their farmland.
McMeekin says there are 4,900 farmers who don’t have a number for the current program year. While the ministry doesn’t know how the Tribunal will rule on reaccrediting the three groups, “these measures are being taken to ensure should no general farm organization be reaccredited farmers without a farm business registration number won’t be affected by the current situation. We must move to protect these farmers.”
Ministry spokesperson Susan Murray said in an earlier email 90 per cent of farmers applied for and received their farm business registration number by this year’s March 1 deadline.
Wales says he hasn’t seen the wording of the Order-in-Council “but I would want to make sure it is only for 2013 and it should only be to cover” the people who don’t have their number.
Wales adds that even if the Tribunal ruled “tomorrow those people aren’t going to get processed in the normal time.”
Wales, Small and Ann Slater, Ontario coordinator for the National Farmers Union, say the measure to temporarily exempt farmers without a number from needing one won’t impact their organizations’ memberships. Small says they’ve been talking to the ministry about the situation involving farmers being unable to get their number since May 23.
Implementing a temporary exemption is “good business on their (the ministry’s) behalf,” Small says. But CFFO would prefer to be reaccredited.
Slater says a few of the farmers who weren’t registered by May 23 are new to the business while others are simply late in registering. “From the point of view of farmers who registered on time and met deadlines I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about the different treatment for farmers who did things on time and for those who didn’t.”
Both Wales and Small describe their relationship with the minister as excellent. Wales says he talks to the minister all the time. Recently McMeekin gave Canadian Federation of Agriculture delegates at their semi-annual meeting in Toronto in July an update on talks to renew Canada’s national policy framework, Growing Forward 2. “He was amazingly candid. In fact, he’s the only minister who’s actually told anybody anything.”
Small says CFFO finds him “very comfortable to work with and very understanding of the issues.”
Slater says their relationship with McMeekin is okay. But while they’ve heard from the ministry its main concern is for farmers who don’t have farm business registration numbers, NFU’s main concern is continuing to represent and lobby governments for the best interests of family farms.
Ernie Hardeman, Progressive Conservative agriculture critic, couldn’t be reached for comment. BF
General farm accreditation archive