A Tribute to Field Staff of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

I could not believe it: A frontal thunder storm system had barely crossed southwestern Ontario to reach our Guelph-area farm, and Peter Johnson was already tweeting advice to farmers – how to deal the inevitable soil crusting problem which pounding rain would cause, preventing the emergence of recently planted soybean seeds/seedlings.

That incident is far from unique. Late May frosts triggered early Saturday morning tweets from Johnson, Mike Cowbrough and several other field staffers of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture (OMAF). Because my primary business is field crops, I am not as familiar with horticulture and livestock, but do recall recent tweets from Leslie Huffman, OMAF’s apple specialist (@OntAppleLady), giving 6 AM advice on expected severity of an overnight mid-May frost at blossom time.

This column is not just about a few individuals or only those who use Twitter (though hopefully they all soon will). It’s about a record of solid service to Ontario agriculture – by many OMAF field staffers who are unheralded heroes for Ontario’s second largest (or is it the largest?) economic sector. Because almost all Ontario farms are family owned and operated, this is about service to rural families as well.

I can think of so many ways in which these people make our world better. They play a dominant role (in cooperation with farm groups) in highly successful winter agricultural information programs – like the Southwest ag conference at Ridgetown, Farm$mart at Guelph – and dozens like them, including many organized by farm input/service suppliers. They are quoted constantly in the farm media – public and private. They’ve adapted readily from the days when the “ag office” dominated agriculture in every county, to providing technical advice through the Internet, farm conferences, and via high-quality private advisory services now well established across Ontario.

Their reward, unfortunately, for doing their job so well, is to be taken for granted. When farm groups meet top ministry officials and politicians, their focus is usually on other things – farm income support/stabilization, trade issues, regulatory burdens, research and more. It’s rarely about what old-timers like me called “extension services.” (The newer term seems to be “tech transfer/service”). No need for farm groups to complain about what’s working well.

Indeed, we often tend to forget that these people are even civil servants. They are seemingly available almost all the time, weekends included – farmers’ hours. “Real government staff don’t do that,” or so common perception says.

Another mis-perception is that the most important service to agriculture comes from big breakthroughs – major new genetics, crops, technologies, products etc. – when most of the gains in agricultural productivity come through incremental  changes: better soil management, more efficient use of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, better timing, better marketing – stuff like that. And even when new breakthrough technologies come, it’s the OMAF field staff and their private sector partners who teach us how to use them effectively.

We take them for granted, and I think government sometimes does too – by creating bureaucratic impediments. I am still annoyed, for example, at a former deputy minister’s decision to prevent some OMAF staff farm visits just prior to the last election. ‘Don’t want any potential for bad press.’  (No, this was not publicized; OMAF staff did not blab; only persistent probing dragged the info out of them. But the edict did not benefit rural Ontario.)

And major barriers to out-of-province travel persist – or perhaps have even grown – even when this would/could be funded by farm groups and would help the staffers become even better informed, and provide even better service to Ontario agriculture.

But enough of that. This column is about positives and the need to say thanks. So from this Ontario farm family to OMAF field staffers: Thank you so much, and keep up the good work.

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