Will Safety Laws Kill the Family Farm?

I recently read an excellent post (read it here) about Bill 6, an omnibus bill introduced by the Alberta Government known as the “Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act”.  The post was heartfelt, poignant and emphatic; it encapsulated the thoughts and fears of many in the rural community.  It particularly resonates with those who identify themselves as “family farms” and who worry that the new bill is an intrusion on civil liberties, privacy and how to conduct oneself on one’s own property. I am part of this group of family farmers – I am a 5th generation farmer. I farm with my kids and with my parents.  I work an off-farm job to support my farm until I can build a large enough operation to sustain itself without off-farm income. I share some of the same concerns as the author of this post, and I worry about how this will affect the fabric of our agricultural community.  If you haven’t read the post yet, I urge you to do so, before reading on. Alberta has 43,000 farms and ranches, and with the introduction of this bill, many are afraid of what the future will hold. We are afraid that our lifestyle will change.

However, this is where I feel we’ve been misdirecting our efforts – we are focused on fear.  Certainly fear is a powerful motivator; I want to be afraid when I encounter a grizzly in the wilderness but in this circumstance it has the dubious distinction of distracting us from the issue at hand.  Yes, the bill will mean changes for farms and ranches in Alberta.  Change is scary, particularly when you’re not the driver of the change or you feel like it is being forced upon you.  But change is also good.  We are the ONLY jurisdiction in Canada that does not have occupational health and safety legislation for farm workers.  In 1964 this might have been acceptable, but not in 2015. Change is required.

It’s not as though farmers and ranchers aren’t used to change. From the weather to market conditions to regulatory requirements to commodity prices, from drought to flood, from feast to famine, farmers are intrinsically linked to change by the very nature of our occupation. The invention of the tractor brought tremendous change to the agricultural industry.  At the time, not all of that change was perceived as positive. Looking back now, what would you say?

“The tractor brought benefits to the farm. It was efficient. The tractor was modern compared to the horse. The farmer-owner did not have to pay as many hired men. There was more leisure time. But the tractor changed the social structure of rural life. The key position that farming held in American life vanished.” (The Tractor Changes Rural Life, Anna Carlson)

The beautiful thing is, in the face of change farmers are also resilient. We adapt to change and we not only survive, we THRIVE.  We have the opportunity to emerge from this legislation and be stronger than ever.

The fear that this act will kill family farms is rooted in a pessimistic approach. This fear assumes that the government will take literal interpretation and fervently enforce every aspect of regulations and work practices that have not yet been drafted. There are many things we do in our every day lives that are already technically prohibited by law, yet go unchecked. Paying my neighbour’s teenager to mow my lawn. Lemonade stands and bake sales that don’t have health inspector permits. These are little gems of our society that are allowed to exist, largely unchecked, so why do we believe that the government will suddenly swoop in with both guns blazing and throw the baby out with the bath water?   Fear breeds fear. One of my neighbours said to me “I just saw a post that the bill makes unionization of farm workers mandatory”. My response was: “A) Have you read the bill? B) Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook and C) Don’t let fear of the unknown control you.” Sure the bill is beneficial to unions. The bill creates worker equality and minimum labour standards for anyone EMPLOYED on a farm. The bill sets out minimum occupational health and safety expectations (further detail through safe work practices and regulations) for anyone WORKING on a farm.

When my son is old enough to get his first job – whether it be at a fast food restaurant or the dairy farm down the road – I expect him to have the right to refuse unsafe work in his workplace.  I expect him to return home safely each night.  I expect him to be provided training, resources and equipment that will allow him to safely perform his job.  I expect that if he is hurt at work, during the performance of his duties, his employer will have a system in place to ensure that he can be adequately compensated for his lost time and that the incident will be investigated so that hopefully it won’t happen to someone else. So why, if I expect this from the service or manufacturing industry, would I not expect this from the agricultural industry? At the end of the day, people are our most precious resource and I could even argue that they’re the only resource that matters.

I’ve read the assertions that this bill will kill the family farm; that there are 43,000 farms in Alberta; that 98% of Alberta farms are family farms.  The implication here is that family farms don’t have employees or that family farms aren’t corporations.  Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case.  Often a family farm has paid or unpaid employees who come from outside the family.  This makes that family farm, by definition, an employer.  Is the number of family farms with 0 employees a determinate number? That I don’t know, but I do know it is less than the 42,120 represented because of how “family farm” is accounted for. Family farm cannot be defined by size, by revenue, or even by number of employees.

Did you know:

  • 9,602 farms generate 49% of Canada’s $51 BILLION in gross farm receipts ($5.3 Million per farm average) yet almost all of those are considered family farms because they are family-owned corporations? (Source: 2011 Federal Agriculture Census)

Suddenly the definition of “family farm” just got a lot murkier.

I spent the first half of my life on a family farm (distinctly not a corporation, and with zero employees) in a province that had farm safety legislation similar to what Alberta is proposing and family farms there still exist. Family farms actually thrive, in accordance with my earlier points.  We are strong, resilient, adaptable and entrepreneurial. I intend to spend the rest of my life farming in Alberta – with my family – and this legislation does not deter me.  If anything, it empowers me. It equips me with knowledge and expectation and accountability. It allows me to know that when I provide health and safety training to employees, or when I pay a WCB premium for my hired hands, I am operating on an economic and social playing field that is level with other farmers who are in the same situation as me.  I take comfort in knowing that large corporations with dozens or hundreds of employees no longer have the opportunity to skirt safety and labour rules under the farm exemption. 

I’m not saying this bill is perfect or that it will satisfy everyone but there are many elements of the bill that make sense. It neglects key focus areas with its broadness. It is being rushed through. It’s not perfect. But it is something where currently we have nothing. It is a point from which to start. Yes, this will be painful.  Yes, there will be changes to how we operate and how we think.  But yes, we will also endure.

I can be changed by what happens to me. I refuse to be reduced by it. – Maya Angelou

We can choose not to let fear guide our decisions.  We can choose to embrace change and to adapt our practices to conform to the knowledge and data and tools and technology we have available at our disposal.  This isn’t new to farming; most of us do it already.  If we choose, we can ensure that this bill makes us stronger, more productive and more united than ever.

This bill won’t kill the family farm; not unless we let it.




14 thoughts on “Will Safety Laws Kill the Family Farm?

  1. I agree with you in that fear is a the base of many including my comments. I agree with farm worker being covered by WCB, I agree with safety first. I do not trust the government to consider the family farm, I do not want to be put in the position of being a law breaker by virtue of having a well meaning neighbour lending a hand. I do not trust that my voice means a dam thing to the government because they did not ask for an opinion until after the fact. I do not like having legislation pushed down my throat just because we are the only province that does not have it. I want to know how it will be regulated. I want to know who will decide whether someone is an employee or a family member. I want to know if having my grandchildren work along side of us are we breaking laws.


    • Joyce – Thank you for your comments. I have a decent understanding of the governmental process and it is typical to create a bill and then develop the regulations that are the meat and potatoes of how the bill will be implemented. I suspect much of the fear can be tied to not having this info yet. However it can also be considered wasteful to spend tax dollars on developing rules for a law that isn’t yet passed in case it is defeated. So there is some procedural jockeying here. I have faith that they will get this right as they work with farm groups to develop the rules and regulations. I may be wrong but I’m willing to think positively and expect the best.


      • The article says: “There are many things we do in our every day lives that are already technically prohibited by law, yet go unchecked …” Unfortunately from a farm liability point of view proceeding with this attitude is not an option. Change is fine but change must be done thoughtfully. Legally the rules must be clear and must be followed. Farmers have generations of estate building at stake. By January 1, 2016 farmers cannot possibly be informed and have made plans for this important piece of legislation. We do not have a human resources or legal depts to refer this to. Of course there will be a fear campaign when farmers are faced with reading OHS Acts and learning about WCB from scratch. I had truly hoped to support the NDP government and I know they campaigned about changing this legislation. In this case the process (the bill before the rules … what do we do in the interim?) they are following is not indicative of responsible government. They have a majority government. Of course the bill will be passed. I understand the NDP is determined to make progress on this issue. Premier Notley’s performance in the legislature emphasizing “98 years” made the clear. What is also clear is that for better or worse the Wildrose logo is being further entrenched in the hearts of rural Alberta.


      • I understand Alberta is the last province to bring forward this legislation. I believe some of the items, if I understand them right are overdue. What I would implore the new NDP government is to seek farmers / farm families input before an all party committee before they release the final draft of the bill to be voted on by the legislature. This input by the farming community is CRITICAL and its so important to construct Bill 6 in the best way possible because obviously with a majority NDP government it is clearly going to pass. This can be good or perhaps a disaster. I hope the former.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This was so well written and thought out. Such a refreshing perspective that doesn’t create a dichotomy between urban and rural Albertans. It really shows that rural Albertans values, matched with critical thinking skills can be an incredibly powerful force. More of this please!


  3. Cowboy Musings –

    While I commend your effort to paint this issue in the brightest light possible, I have a different perspective on what the NDP government of Alberta is working to accomplish.
    You write: “It’s not as though farmers and ranchers aren’t used to change. From the weather to market conditions to regulatory requirements to commodity prices, from drought to flood, from feast to famine, farmers are intrinsically linked to change by the very nature of our occupation.”

    Then you write: “The beautiful thing is, in the face of change farmers are also resilient. We adapt to change and we not only survive, we THRIVE. We have the opportunity to emerge from this legislation and be stronger than ever.”

    Statscan posted this information, comparing family farms in Canada from 1991 to 2011.

    From: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/96-325-x/2014001/article/11905-eng.htm

    “The structure of agriculture has changed significantly over the last two decades with fewer but larger farms. While there were 280,043 farms in 1991, according to the Census of Agriculture, by 2011, that number had gradually declined to 205,730. Since 1991, the average farm area increased from 598 to 778 acres, while the number of farm operators decreased from 390,875 to 293,925, a 24.8% drop. Over the same period, the average age of farm operators increased, rising from 47.5 to 54.0 years.

    “Between 1991 and 2011, the number of operators under 55 years of age decreased from 265,495 to 152,015 while the number of older operators increased from 125,380 to 141,920.”

    You are a 5th generation farmer. My family has been connected to farming since my grandparents, who emigrated from Europe in 1914, desperately tried to farm a quarter section west of Red Deer in 1929. They lost the farm in 1932. They tried again in 1941, with my grandmother trying to run a farm and raise children while my grandfather worked in the coalmines of Southern Alberta. He died from a heart attack in 1950, and my grandmother held onto the farm until her health forced her to move to town in the 1960’s, where she died a few years later from a stroke and heart attack.

    Of the nine children in their family, one son farmed and one daughter farmed. Of those two, there were a combined number of 8 children. Of those, four tried to farm. Of those four, only one was able to establish a farm which allowed the family to farm full time – and even then, off-farm income supplemented the farm income. My aunt, who farmed with her family, was hailed out five times in one stretch of seven years- and there was no insurance in those days. Among my cousins and me, growing up: all of our old clothes went to my aunt for repair, to clothe her children. Her husband suffered a back injury while working on drilling rigs, and this limited his ability to get work off-farm for the rest of his life. Not one of my extended family (including those on my wife’s side, too) would – or could – truthfully describe their operations as “thriving”.

    My wife and I own a section and a half east of Edmonton. I work in the oil industry (or: I did until the rigs mostly shut down), and I rent the land out to neighbours: most years, I don’t bother collecting rent, as they didn’t earn enough money to pay for the crop-share after expenses. One neighbour, who pastured cattle on one of our quarters, last year sold his cattle, and went driving truck. He told me: “In six weeks, I earned more than I made off the farm all last year – and no input costs!”

    I appreciate your effort to look on the sunny side of this parasitic legislation. On the other hand, I personally know no farmers who are “thriving” without either off-farm work, or income from oil companies for leases on farm land.

    Given your obvious affection for Wendell Berry, I trust you are familiar with another quote of his, often presented as a poem:

    The Real Work – Wendell Berry
    It may be that when we no longer know what to do
    we have come our real work,
    and that when we no longer know which way to go
    we have come to our real journey.
    The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
    The impeded stream is the one that sings.

    Note that he does not mention thriving in adversity. He does mention that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our “real work”, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our “real journey”.

    I am compelled to state that, from where I sit, for thousands of people, this legislation intends that their real work will not be on the land, and their real journey will be into some other career – if they can find one. From where you sit, that may constitute “thriving”.

    This constitutes the end of a way of life. Agribusiness will survive. Rural Alberta will continue to lose population to the big cities, and dozens more small, rural, communities will disappear – just as they have been doing since the 1960’s. The lifestyle, which hundreds of thousands of children knew, raised on the farms of the prairies and northern woodlands of Alberta, will not. I read, a few years back, that any community with a population less than 1,000, was not expected to survive. This is not what one expects when one hears the word “thrive.”

    I grieve for what will be lost.

    The one bright spot, which I perceive, is that as the province is dragged into the hole of fiscal mismanagement and social engineering experiments, the price of farmland will decrease. This, at least, will ease the burden on those who are left, who buy up the land of families forced to move on.

    Jim Szpajcher
    St. Paul, Alberta


    • Thank you Jim for an incredibly detailed and insightful comment in response to my post. I can sympathize with your point about many of the farmers you know being in a situation where they are far from thriving. While the statistics about reductions in number of farms and increases in farm sizes seem compelling I wonder if it is really as simple as a cause and effect relationship. Our society is becoming increasingly urbanized and there is no disputing that fact. However are more people living in the city because farming is hard and they choose not to farm? Or are fewer people living on the farm and choosing to farm because there are so many more opportunities to achieve “success” as we seem to currently define it by living in the city? It’s an interesting question that involves so many dynamics even if we researched it I am willing to bet there would be no single factor that stood out clearly above the rest. I have found that those who are willing (and able) to stay on the farm and retain farming as their principle vocation are actually succeeding, which can also be borne out in the statistic showing that farm sizes are increasing. I personally know many farmers who are thriving; perhaps this is simply a geographical phenomenon where regionally there are pockets of ‘success’ versus pockets of harder times. The average farm income and size here in central Alberta is quite robust so perhaps that influences me and creates a regional bias. However I come from the business world (I work off farm by choice not necessarily by necessity) and I hold the belief that if you marry desire with a sound business plan, prudent financial acumen and a willingness to adapt, you can achieve success in nearly any arena. This doesn’t mean failures or hard times won’t occur, but no rise ever comes without its share of dips and valleys. It goes without saying that if I am creating a product for which there is no demand I will not be successful in seeking that product and in my experience the farmers who embrace this also succeed (that doesn’t mean those who don’t succeed don’t also embrace this, because there are many factors at play). I believe the greatest challenge facing the sustainability of agriculture is the barrier to entry for, and the loss of, young farmers. However, statistics are starting to show that young farmers are returning to the farm more educated and more adaptable so I hold strong hope for our future. Ultimately I have tried to embrace an optimistic approach to our situation, which is really intended as the main point of my post. We cannot choose what happens to us but we can choose how we react. Yours was a wonderfully well written, respectful and insightful response so again, thank you.


  4. Under the Labour standards for youth your son will not be able to work at the dairy barn, refusing work will not be an issue. There is a list of safe allowable jobs for youth, and any farm work is certainly not on that list


    • I wrote that when my son is old enough – whatever that age may be, when he reaches it i expect him to have worker rights and protections. I worked on a dairy farm as a teenager in a province that had similar legislation with no issues. I am hopeful our provincial government will use the common sense approach in drafting the codes and regulations that will be the crux of this legislation.


  5. Thank you for your well written commentary, I certainly don’t disagree with everything you have written, but I am curious to know where you were able to read bill 6 in its entirety, and not just the 12 page addendum to the bill, please advise thank you for your very good commentary


    • Brent, that 12 page is the entire bill 6. You have to look at each one of the other regulations that are being changed to see what is being changed, but what is written there is the entire bill.


  6. Your comments seem sound and reasonable but it is based on the premise that government will be fair and reasonable. I have had first hand experience of situations where government employee’s have been given great power and have abused the power even bragging about it. We have been asked to be accountable for our actions yet those who regulate have no onus to be accountable. We have numerous examples today of people who think they have good intentions only to discover that their good in theory idea is full of flaws that seriously hurt good people. Best way to make the work place less safe is to add more stress to an already stressful situation. Negatively impact a person’s ability to successfully run his business and you create an environment where he is less likely to follow the rules or do the right thing. When I look at rural vs urban culture it would seem that it should be rural culture and values that we should be moving toward not the other way around. The premise and examples of why we need this legislation seem totally foreign to me. I would never force my employees to do anything let alone something dangerous. Do you really think there is a line up of people wanting to work in agriculture. Our farm has placed a much stronger emphasis on safety and rightly or wrongly we like many businesses are driven by the threat of liability. Often it is my employees who have to be reminded of that. We should not be fearful moving forward but everyday our industry seems to be attacked by someone else who knows nothing about our business yet thinks we should all abide by their own personal agenda’s. Our industry makes great contributions to our society and deserves to be treated fairly and with respect. If the government does not have the expertise or understanding of our industry then they owe it to us to let the industry drive the rules and regulations not the other way around.


  7. Great post and great write up. I agree with all your points and thoughtful reasoning. I was shocked to see my write up referenced (I’m Daniel Schneider the author of ‘A Small Voice’. This was brought to my attention through a friend). Looking back my post did rely on emotions a tad too much but I would not have changed a thing. My post has gotten people talking about this issue and gave a voice to those who didn’t know how to express their fears in a way that others may understand. It gave us farmers notice and a well reasoned calm voice to our cause.

    We continue to fight this bill for all the very reasons you have talked about in your article. Family farms and our way of life can only die if we let it. As long as we fight for it, it can survive. That’s why I and so many others fight. This bill as it’s written and will be put into effect has the power for good and bad for farms in Alberta (also I apologize cause I feel what I just said about the bill and much of what I will say, you are probably already aware of). It currently leans towards bad in mine and the vast majority of Alberta farmers opinion. So far the government has promised to work with farmers to help change it for good after the bill is passed. I’m a big believer in taking the time to do the job right the first time. Not knowingly bringing in a flawed solution, to be fixed later. So far the government has said they will work with us, but shown they won’t. Actions speak louder than words and you need to do the right thing in the present, not the future. Only the present is certain, the future is uncertain. They didn’t consult us prior to making bill 6, limited the consultation meetings and then straight up ignored us when not one MLA show up to their own consultation meeting with us in Grande Prairie. Based on the present they have not done right. Does that mean they mean us ill intent or that they eventually won’t do the right thing? Of course not. I believe they want whats best.

    That’s why I and all the other farmers continue to fight bill 6. And why we will continue to get our voice heard and fight for our well being even if this bill does pass. Because like you, yourself said, this bill will only kill family farms if we let it. We will continue to make our voice and concerns heard to the world to make sure that our farms and lives continue to thrive. I want to believe the government will make sure of that but they have not proven that so far and I don’t believe in hoping others will fight my battles for me.

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece. We will continue to stand up for our rights and extend an open hand to the government until we can have the proper conversation that will lead to a bridge built between this unnecessary divide so that we can all work together for the right solution


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Although all provinces have some form of OH&S legislation, several Provinces have exempted the family farm operations from the legislation. But knowing the liability involved in farming operations, many farmers have purchased their own liability insurance.


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