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.