by BETTER FARMING STAFF
The Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Tribunal “has to struggle with how the word ‘member’ has so many meanings,” said Nicholas Richter, chair of the hearing into the re-accreditation of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture on Friday.
The meaning and definition of the term “membership” is key to the federation regaining its accreditation as a general farm organization. According to the federation’s website, there are three categories of membership. There are Individual Farm Memberships and there are Associate Memberships. The former may vote and run for office. The latter, usually supporting businesses, do not.
But by far the most of the general farm organization’s 37,000 members in 2011 were in the Farm Business Registration (FBR) category. And there’s the rub. According to the Tribunal’s May 23 ruling, the federation (and other farm groups) can’t count farm business owners as members unless “an explicit membership agreement” is completed between the two parties. Simply directing a farm business registration fee towards one of the three organizations doesn’t meet the province’s criteria.
The May Tribunal decision referred to it as “negative option membership” stating it “is not in compliance with section 21 (10)” of the Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act of 1993. According to a Tribunal ruling in May it is one of the reasons that the federation was not re-accredited.
“We always considered anyone who paid a FBR” fee to be a member, general manager Neil Currie noted during the federations hearing before the Tribunal on Friday. The federation representatives presented the Tribunal with a list of 1,211 FBR members, who had sent letters to the federation expressing their intent to be federation members. (A minimum of 250 was required) In the future, the federation intends to change the membership form so that the “intent” to join it can be handled in an “efficient” manner, Currie said. Perhaps there will be something as simple as a check box that indicates that intent.
Who is and is not a member of the OFA is critical to some other questions that the Tribunal was raising.
One question was what portion of the federation’s income is sent to the federation’s affiliates. Legislation calls for a minimum of 25 per cent. The federation’s 2011 membership income, largely from farm business registration members was $7,453,000, said Lori Perkes, OFA’s director of finance and human resources. The federation says it sent $1.99 million to the counties, both in case and “in kind” payments. Currie describes “in kind” payments as services provided such as that by member service representatives and administration to county federations. That amounts to just over 27 per cent of income if the income includes farm business registration memberships and more than 1,000 per cent if only the Individual Farm Memberships and Associate Memberships are taken into account.
The Tribunal members focused for much of the afternoon on the in kind payments. Currie says he has a 1995 letter, from then-Tribunal chairman Charles Broadwell, stating that “in kind” payments were to be considered as part of the 25 per cent.
An early decision on the re-accreditation of general farm organizations is becoming critical, Currie said.
About 2,000 farm businesses that are normally Ontario Federation of Agriculture members “are in limbo,” Currie told the Tribunal. They sent their registration cheques to Agricorp after the May 23 dis-accreditation. Unless the OFA gets re-accredited by Aug 31, they won’t be able to register for their farm property tax class, which saves them many thousands of dollars annually.
There are also some “unique circumstances,” Currie said, citing an unnamed farmer who was “putting up a structure” and was charged a $12,000 development fee. The township “bylaw says you must have a farm business registration number” in order to be exempted.
“He would gladly have paid the $195.00,” Currie told the Tribunal, with some irony in his voice.
For the Federation itself, those 2,000 farmers represent income of $370,000 that will be lost if cheques aren’t cashed by Agricorp by Aug. 31, the OFA’s year end, said Perkes. The francophone farm organization will lose one third of its $30,000 annually paid by the OFA. “Accreditation as early as possible in August would be best for us," Currie said, answering a question from Tribunal hearing chairman Nicholas Richter. BF