The Alberta government’s town halls on Bill 6 last winter were explosive, but recent industry-led meetings didn’t produce similar fireworks.
“I thought the meeting went very well. There were lots of ideas thrown around between farmers and the facilitators,” said Turin-area farmer Kevin Serfas, who attended AgCoalition’s producer meeting in Lethbridge on June 22.
“The atmosphere was more, ‘OK, let’s work with government.’ There’s some good things about this bill, but there’s some really bad things about this bill, so let’s work with them and throw ideas around.
“There are compromises that can be made that will keep most people happy.”
The Alberta Agriculture Farm and Ranch Safety Coalition — more commonly known as AgCoalition — hosted producer meetings at three locations in Alberta in late June to “offer feedback into the consultation process with the government,” said AgCoalition co-chair Kent Erickson, who farms near Irma.
“The three meetings in Lethbridge, Leduc, and Grande Prairie were designed to have good focused feedback from producers from all different sectors to talk about employment standards, labour relations, occupational health and safety, and just general farm safety to make sure we have a good understanding of where our producers are coming from,” said Erickson.
In Leduc, Gord Winkel, strategy adviser for the AgCoalition, facilitated the meeting with over 50 in attendance.
“We are here to design our own future — a future for ag by ag,” he said.
The meetings were meant to mirror the government-led consultation process for developing regulations to go with the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, where six separate technical working groups will cover areas ranging from employment standards, labour relations, and occupational health and safety.
“We’re going to take the feedback we receive and try to feed it into the government process so that it will be industry led, which is what we’re really hoping for,” said Erickson, who also sits on one of the technical working groups.
“I think industry needs to try to take control again of farm safety, whether it’s technical standards, regulations, or education.”
The technical working groups met for the first time in mid-June. The six groups have 72 members (plus an independent chair), of which 23 are producers recommended by the AgCoalition. There are also industry experts, labour reps, and farm employees on the six groups.
“From my perspective as a producer, (the first meeting) went well,” said Erickson. “It was very professional, and all of the people at the tables are there for a good reason.
“I really do think some of the outside expertise is going to offer some constructive feedback in some of the components of the tables, but it can be a little tricky when you have outside expertise weighing in on an industry that they really don’t understand.”
Erickson said he hopes information gathered at the three AgCoalition meetings will help guide the 36 producers who are participating in the government’s working groups.
“Because I do sit at one of the tables, what I really need from these three meetings is a good understanding of what farmers and ranchers want to see,” said Erickson. “We need to get a good feel of what producers really want to get across so when I go into a table, I don’t feel like I’m just representing myself or taking a stab in the dark at what’s best for farmers.”
AgCoalition wanted to keep the three meetings “very objective and very constructive,” inviting two or three people from each of the coalition’s 30 member groups to participate in the process.
“What we didn’t want was to end up with 400 people because it wasn’t a forum like the town halls in December,” he said. “We were looking to get enough focus to really make some decisions and get some really good information.”
Many people at the Leduc meeting were from the grain sector, but other sectors — cow-calf, feedlot, dairy, greenhouse, and elk, to name a few — were also represented. One grain farmer, whose background was in education, viewed the meetings as farmers “writing a new curriculum for the school year.”
The coalition will also be exploring other ways for producers to provide feedback, Erickson added.
“Now that we’ve done the meetings with the government, we understand the types of questions we’re going to be asked, so we’re going to try to develop some sort of survey or a way to provide feedback for people who aren’t able to attend the meetings,” he said.
“When all is said and done, we’ll have a good technical report and briefing for all the nominees whoare at the government tables.”
For his part, Serfas was a little skeptical about the AgCoalition when it was formed, but he’s come around after attending the Lethbridge meeting.
“I questioned how the AgCoalition was going to do this and keep everybody’s best interests in mind,” said Serfas. “You’ve got 40 or 50 people representing 40,000 producers, and the math on it doesn’t look that great.
“But after today, I really do think that they are doing a service to the industry.”
At the meeting, producers were invited to share their input on each of the technical working group areas, said Serfas.
“They wanted feedback on which parts we like and which parts we just cannot live with,” he said. “There was a pretty decent consensus amongst the group of things that will work and things that will not work.”
One such area was overtime for seasonal workers.
“There was a consensus that that will not work in the ag industry, mainly because we’re so seasonal. If you take a look at a year’s worth of work as a whole, we probably fall within industry standards, but because of seasonality, there’s times where it just won’t work.”
There were a lot of ‘how do we’ and ‘who takes the lead’ questions during discussions.
Cost was another area that was top of mind for producers — not only who is going to cover the cost of implementation, but what it’s going to cost for producers to implement.
Producers at the Lethbridge meeting also agreed about the importance of having safer farms for their families and workers.
“We all want our employees to be going home at night safe and in the same condition that they came to work in,” said Serfas. “At the end of the day, our No. 1 priority is the farm worker and their safety.”
But the “biggest thing” was the opportunity for producers to provide their input.
“I think people were really happy that they were able to sit and talk to some of the people who are actually sitting at these government tables and representing us,” said Serfas. “They just want to be heard.”
(Editor’s note: Contributor Jill Burkhardt is a cow-calf producer near Gwynne and attended the Leduc meeting in that role.)