KAP Confronts Changing Rural Economy

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Keystone Agricultural Producers will hold its 19th Annual Meeting January 22-24, 2003. Its nineteen years as a farm lobbyist has made it an important player on the rural landscape. The comprehensive conference agenda demonstrates KAP’s scope, with a wide variety of thorny topics like crop insurance, land assessment and taxation, the livestock industry and the entire new federal Agricultural Policy Framework.

The speakers’ list reflects this focus, with a roster of academics, politicians, farm leaders and even me, participating on a panel dealing with that perennial favourite, “The Future of Rural Communities.” My relentless optimism about the new possibilities for rural life depends on governments who are enlightened enough to put the right incentives in place.

Under successive presidents and elected officers, KAP has managed to steer a fairly steady course amid the rocks and shoals of farm policy. As one KAP leader relates, “When the Tories are in, they think we’re a bunch of NDP sympathizers and when the NDP is in, they think we’re all Tories. We must be doing something right!”

Given the rise of commodity and livestock groups, it is often difficult for a generalist type of organization to survive. Alberta’s “Wild Rose Agricultural Producers” is dwarfed by the livestock interests in that province, while the jury is still out on the fairly new “Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.” Here KAP has built an impressive track record and key agricultural decision-makers in Manitoba would not dream of refusing an invitation from KAP.

KAP does have its share of critics, mainly because it tries to represent all agricultural sectors, many of which are in competition with each another. Its revenue depends on compulsory fees from all farmers, and the width of that base affects the organization’s freedom to take controversial positions.

For example, KAP dares not take a position on either side of the Canadian Wheat Board issue because its member organizations have very different and competing views on the topic. KAP also straddles the fence in the whole free agricultural trade versus supply management argument and endorses both. These two positions are frequently contradictory. The organization officially supports the Province’s ethanol initiative, but rumor has it that more and more questions are starting to be asked about this very risky enterprise.

KAP seems hesitant to engage in the entire rural development debate, even though it is well-placed to do so. A surprising percentage of the rural economy is now either non-agricultural or related to value-added processing jobs. This “other” economy is crucial to the survival of farm families since many members work in it. But as a farmers organization, KAP seems reluctant fully to embrace the challenge of rural diversification.

Despite all that, KAP has performed well under very challenging internal and external circumstances. Under the effective leadership of Neepawa’s Weldon Newton, 2002 was another successful year. KAP is well placed to draw attention to viewpoints woefully unrepresented in Ottawa. That can’t hurt.