Ontario’s top three general farm organizations head into hearings this week to try and regain their lost accreditations, through which the province’s farmers have paid the annual memberships that fund the groups.
The province’s Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal will hear appeals from the National Farmers Union-Ontario (NFU-O) on Wednesday, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) on Friday and Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) on Saturday. The appeals stem from the tribunal’s rulings in May, which saw all three lose their bids for re-accreditation.
The tribunal’s May decisions hinge mainly on its interpretation of the 1993 reworking of the province’s Farm Registration and Farm Organizations Funding Act.
Until now, the three organizations have received much of their revenue from membership fees collected when farmers make their annual filings of their farming business registration forms through the provincial agency Agricorp. Farmers each pay $195, which is then directed to the organization of their choice.
The tribunal on May 23 heard the requests for three-year re-accreditation from all three groups, in which they all said there’s no conflict between a paid membership and the fee collected as per the Act.
The three groups and the tribunal agreed that "the payment becomes the membership fee on acceptance of the terms of membership by both parties."
The tribunal has now ruled, however, that the Act’s intent is for the fee to be considered a paid membership in one of the groups — but only if "the person or farm business requests membership and the accredited farm organization accepts the person or farm business as a member."
The tribunal referred to the discussions held while the Act was being reworked in 1993. The Ontario ag ministry’s legal services branch at that time noted new text in the Act which makes clear that payment of the fee alone "does not confer membership in the farm organization."
"Membership in the organization would be a separate step that a farm business would choose or not choose to take," the legal services branch said at the time.
Interpreted that way, the Act rules that the fee collected by the province could only be considered a paid membership if the person or farm business providing the payment to the ag ministry "explicitly applies to become a member of the accredited farm organization in whose name the prescribed amount payable is made."
Also, for the fee to count as a paid membership for the purposes of accreditation, it’s required that the farm group in question then "explicitly accepts the membership application and communicates this to the person or farm business providing the payment."
However, the tribunal said, the process by which the three groups have until now received their membership funds "results in negative option membership for the person or farm business making the payment and is not in compliance" with the Act.
"In plain language, an explicit membership agreement between the parties does not exist before the payment is treated as a membership fee," the tribunal said in May.
The tribunal also found none of the three groups submitted their audited financial statements and auditors’ reports within the timeframe and specific criteria laid out in the Act for 2008, 2009 or 2010.
The Act requires accredited groups to submit "compliant documents… on an ongoing basis during the period of its accreditation," the tribunal said, and there’s no remedy in the Act that would allow any of the three groups to re-file compliant financial reports after the deadline window is closed.
"Furthermore, the regulation does not bestow the tribunal with any discretion in this matter," the tribunal said.
The tribunal also found that the processes by which the NFU-O and CFFO elect their executives have been in breach of the Act.
The appeals from the three groups will be held this week before the tribunal at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs head office in Guelph.