Elbert van Donkersgoed
Philosophy, Class of 1967
Blessing Ontario agriculture
On Feb. 6, 1971, Elbert van Donkersgoed’s ’67 wife read a “help wanted” ad out loud to him. He remembers the date because within days he knew he’d heard his life’s calling.
For 35 years van Donkersgoed has been the guiding force behind the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO). Founded in 1954 by Dutch immigrants, it was, in 1971, barely afloat. The CFFO hired van Donkersgoed — its first full-time staff member — gave him 100 names, $20 in the bank and a mandate: “Figure out how to make this organization fly.”
He did. Van Donkersgoed began by going from farm to farm with a simple pitch: “I’m inviting you to help build an organization that will be a blessing to agriculture in Ontario and to the whole Ontario community.”
As a high school student, van Donkersgoed had attended CFFO meetings with his father. He has always been convinced its fundamental organizing principle can change public policy: “We step back, as Christians, from the hurly burly of daily farm life to sort out the farm challenges of the day. Then we step forward together to put forth a solution.”
Today more than 4,000 members of the CFFO step back in 22 district associations across Ontario. When they step forward their policy recommendations are taken seriously. Provincial and national agriculture officials regularly consult van Donkersgoed, the CFFO’s strategic policy adviser. His weekly commentary on faith, farming and the countryside, The Corner Post, airs on two radio stations, is distributed electronically around the world and is featured in four print outlets.
The organization, for example, was one of the first to call for the protection of farmland from urban encroachment. First a municipality at a time, then the province as a whole, enacted zoning ordinances limiting what landowners can do with farmland.
Another issue on which the CFFO has raised a voice is the effect of intensive agriculture technologies. “We have driven significant change in how big a footprint agriculture leaves on the environment,” van Donkersgoed said.
Lately the CFFO has been engaged in some serious soul-searching. “We’re realizing that a lot of the things we’ve been doing has given us Band-Aids, not solutions for the future,” van Donkersgoed said.
He notes that the number of farms in Canada shrinks each year and the net income of Canadian farms, taken as a whole, is zero. That’s understandable, van Donkersgoed said. “We’ve created a farming structure that’s so focused on producing food in quantities as large as possible as efficiently as possible that we’re not producing the food people want to eat.”
He explained that enhancements added to food after it leaves the farm are primarily what a shopper pays for; little of the food dollar returns to the farmer.
The answer, van Donkersgoed believes, is nothing short of restructuring the food chain: “We need to reconnect to the eater, so we produce what people pay for.”
After stepping back to analyze the problem, the CFFO is now stepping forward to endorse a new marketing approach that enables consumers to choose food that’s grown locally by farmers whose practices can sustain the land and its people for a long and healthy future. In a pilot program at the University of Toronto, students will soon be able to choose a food service that guarantees that a substantial percentage of its food comes from local farms following sustainability guidelines.
It’s a small step forward in a huge task. But after 35 years, Elbert van Donkersgoed knows that’s how change begins. And, he adds, “I’m a patient man.”