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COMMENTARY: Identifying and meeting the needs of Ontario’s farm community

Insurance is an area where farmers and farm businesses have special requirements that aren’t necessarily covered by more generally available solutions

The following column was written and submitted by Drew Spoelstra, president, Ontario Federation of Agriculture:

Agriculture as a sector often has unique needs when it comes to accessing services, such as banking, financing, and even telecommunications and energy, to name just a few.

Insurance is another area where farmers and farm businesses have special requirements that aren’t necessarily covered by more generally available solutions.

This is not new; in Ontario, this challenge for farmers dates back to at least just after World War II – and it is likely to continue in the future as our changing climate makes farms in particular more vulnerable to weather related disasters, for example.

I’m a director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) board, where one of my appointments is also as a farmer representative to Co-operators, an insurance company that also happens to be an OFA benefit program partner.

The two organizations share a long history, dating back to the 1940s. That’s when farmers were having trouble accessing affordable insurance for farm activities like livestock transit. So, they decided to form their own insurance company in 1946, the Co-operators Fidelity and Guarantee Association, with the OFA joining as a partner a year later.

Following a reorganization in 1950, Co-operators Insurance Association was born with the OFA, the Ontario Credit Union League and the United Co-operatives of Ontario as principal shareholders, and in 1978, amalgamations led to the formation of Co-operators we know today.

That original drive for farm insurance expanded over time to fill other insurance and financial services gaps for farm families. An excellent example is the OFA and Co-operators working together to design a family health, medical, dental and life insurance program for farmers. It’s a program that is still in place today and meeting a valuable need for farm families who can’t access employer benefits the way many other Ontarians do.

One of the OFA’s biggest assets is our ability to advocate for the needs of our members across Ontario and ensure that the farmer voice is represented where decisions are being made.

In the case of insurance, I believe it’s important for us as farmers to bring forward perspectives on how agriculture operates, what modern farm businesses look like today and what we anticipate they’ll look like a decade or two from now.

Agriculture is very different now than it was even 20 years ago, and as we adopt new technologies, automate processes and become increasingly digital, the types of risks that we’ll need to protect ourselves against will change too. That’s why it’s important for the insurance industry to keep in sync with farming and agricultural businesses.

At Co-operators, OFA is able to keep those lines of communications open through a seat on their board, currently held by Jack Wilkinson, and by Keith Currie and I, who serve as farmer delegates to the company.

That’s how we can bring forward feedback from our members about the types of products they’d like to see, and where there are current and potentially future gaps in coverage.

There is a keen interest and focus, for example, on climate change adaptation and how to mitigate effects on the farm, for example. Ultimately, their goal and ours is to identify and lower insurance risks for farm businesses – and we appreciate the ongoing collaboration with Co-operators, which has been in place in various forms for over 75 years.

It’s not just around insurance that OFA takes a leading role in identifying and helping to address needs in the farm community, though. The Farmer Wellness Initiative is another, perhaps more recent example.

Almost a decade ago, various research studies confirmed what farmers already knew anecdotally – farming is a high stress sector, but farmers and their families had little to no access to mental health and wellness programs in rural areas.

OFA and many other farm organizations worked together to champion the development of this type of programming for Ontario’s agriculture sector, and support from Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs Lisa Thompson and her ministry, as well as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada helped make the desperately needed Farmer Wellness Initiative a reality a couple of years ago.

Today, this means Ontario farmers, their families and employees can access free mental health counselling any time and any day of the year from individuals knowledgeable about the challenges of the agricultural sector by calling 1-866-267-6255.