When you’re a small fish in a big pond, you can find yourself ignored — not intentionally, perhaps, but ignored simply because you’re not big enough to make much difference to anyone.
That’s what a small group of contractors and suppliers felt 35 years ago when they formed the Canadian Farm Builders Association (CFBA), with help from the Ontario provincial agriculture ministry.
Gary van Bolderen, of Dutch Masters Construction Services Ltd., is a charter member of the association, and was present at the founding meeting.
He recalled in a recent interview that one of the prime movers in the group’s early days was the late Glen White, founder of Steelway Building Systems.
"He was a little better at seeing into the future than some of us," van Bolderen said. "He got together with some of his dealers, and with a few others, we started talking about the need for the farm builders to get together and talk about the farm building code and things like that."
White died in 2006, but his firm remains a member of the association, which now has 129 members.
The group is a member of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA) and van Bolderen is chairman of COCA’s board of directors for 2014-2015. Membership of COCA gives an association a louder voice in matters pertaining to the provincial construction industry than they would have otherwise, he said.
Back in 1980, though, the CFBA needed help from the agriculture ministry, which, van Bolderen said, was very supportive.
"They were encouraging people to get together and form associations for beef cattle, or swine producers, whatever. And they provided us, a little group of small contractors, with an executive director…an office where we could meet and secretarial support. We didn’t have to pay for any of that."
Eventually though, as the group grew, it was able to wean itself from the ministry’s help, hire and pay for its executive director "and look after ourselves."
Although there was no single issue that led to the formation of the association, there was "a general feeling that we wanted more input in writing the farm building code because it’s quite different than the rest of the building codes, and provides a different set of standards than (those required) for a factory or a house."
Farm buildings, van Bolderen said, are "a unique thing that people don’t really know about or talk about."
"We’re a big business, but we’re small when compared to somebody who builds a hospital that takes four years to do and costs maybe $10 billion. So we tend to get lost or hidden.
"That’s why I’m interested. Because when (governments) make rules, those rules might make sense for an EllisDon or a PCL…but would be very harmful to a small contractor.
"A small contractor’s voice is not heard as much simply because we don’t have the time or the resources (to make our voice heard). I’m concerned that there can be unintended consequences if someone isn’t there to speak for the small contractors, and that’s what most of the CFBA members are."
Farm building can be regarded as a niche market. Association members do things like specialized barns for dairy operations, or hog or poultry farms. But they also do other things — a farm home perhaps, or a farm machinery outlet. Van Bolderen occupies a niche within a niche; he does horse barns and nothing else.
"But everybody’s got to make a living. I’m pretty unusual in that I only stick to one thing. I don’t get involved in dairy barns. But most guys might build a house here, a dairy barn there, maybe a poultry barn, granaries, whatever, depending on what the market asks for."
Something that’s changed drastically over time, he said, is a permitting system that has become more and more complex.
"Nowadays, the hardest thing to do is get a permit. The easiest thing to do is to build the darn barn."
He then reeled off a list of the things that might be required in order to get a permit.
"Nowadays they want a property survey; they want a site plan; they want a nutrient-management plan; they want might want an environmental heritage assessment. They want a minimum-distance separation plan; they need a stormwater management plan. The local conservation authority needs to see a fill permit, a manure storage plan. You will have to have a road entrance permit."
All of those things require an engineer’s stamp before the local authority will accept them, so it can cost a lot of money.
Van Bolderen said his firm is doing "a fairly simple" job in King Township (north of Toronto) "and the customer’s had to pay a little bit more than $17,000 for permits."
Back when he was getting his own business started a permit wasn’t needed to build a barn.
"I don’t want to go back that way because it’s not really the right way," he said, but added that he feels the number of permits needed now has been carried to extremes.
Although the farm builder’s group has the word "Canadian" in its name, its members are all in Ontario. Asked about that, van Bolderen said that when the organization was new, "we did have some members from British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
"But eventually these guys drifted away and no one replaced them, and that’s because of the distance. They were just too far away to be able to get involved."
For van Bolderen, part of being involved is his connection with COCA.
"I’ve been going there for the last eight or 10 years, and I think it is one heck of an organization, in terms of being plugged in to what’s going on with the political process and the whole construction industry.
"I’m a firm believer that we’re being heard. A lot of guys on the board here at the CFBA — and I’ll extend that to COCA — are very interested in helping government achieve success with its legislation by doing it correctly. We’re not there just to complain."
The group makes submissions, as it did to Tony Dean when he was doing his review of the Ontario College of Trades.
Van Bolderen said he had a three-hour meeting recently with Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn, and wondered, as he left, how much of what he’d said had been retained by the minister. Then, a few days later, the minister called him back and "said it was refreshing to hear about somebody who was from a small construction company because we don’t hear that very often."
When he hears something like that, van Bolderen said, "I get all juiced up and think, OK, I’m not wasting my time."