It’s that time of year again when many of us turn our attention to numbers and columns. For the Ontario government, it means turning its focus to the next provincial budget. As part of that process, they hold consultations to find out what Ontarians feel is important and to get input into where and how different groups and sectors of the economy think budget funding should be allocated.
As President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), I had the chance to give a presentation to the finance and economic affairs committee earlier this month on behalf of the 38,000 farm businesses our organization represents across this province.
There’s no denying that our sector is an economic powerhouse. We produce more than 200 different farm, food and floral products, generate nearly 750,000 jobs, and contribute more than $47 billion annually to the provincial economy. The vast majority of this activity happens in rural areas of the province, which gives us some unique perspectives, opportunities and challenges.
In fact, this past fall, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Lisa Thompson, announced the Grow Ontario Strategy where she challenged our sector to increase the production, consumption and manufacturing of Ontario food as well as boost our annual agri-food exports.
The agri-food industry is a major asset to Ontario and it’s one that can be maximized with strategic investment – in other words, we’re up to the challenge, but support from the provincial government is needed in some very key areas to help us get there.
One of those key areas is physical and social infrastructure, a perennial budget topic.
In rural Ontario, the greatest needs are investments to maintain rural roads, bridges and drainage systems, expanding reliable and affordable broadband internet, upgrading and improving the rural energy grid to enable access to affordable energy, and expanding social infrastructure like local schools and health care. All of these are essential to attracting and keeping people and businesses in rural communities.
We appreciate the provincial government’s commitment to 100% internet coverage in Ontario by 2025, and the ongoing investments that are being made to reach this goal. We also encourage the government to continue its expansion of natural gas lines in rural, northern and remote community across Ontario to ensure all residents have access to affordable and reliable energy.
One of the greatest investments made this past year by government is the Farmer Wellness Initiative, a mental health support program designed specifically for farmers and their families that is making a positive difference for those in need. This is an investment we would like to see continue, and we believe that it would benefit all to expand it to farm employees as well.
Beyond that, we recommend a continued robust strategy to tackle human resource issues in health care. This means leveraging technology and health innovations, supporting the next generation of health care professionals and continuing to address immediate workforce shortages, including through innovative scope of practice and patient care approaches.
One of the greatest problems facing agriculture right now is the critical shortage of veterinarians – particularly those who specialize in large animals – in rural and northern Ontario. The provincial government has already made some positive investments to address the issue and we encourage continued support for the Collaborative Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in Rural and Northern Community Practice Program, the Livestock Veterinary Innovation Initiative, and the Veterinary Assistance Program. Financial incentives for veterinary students and practitioners to practice in rural and remote areas and financial support for clinics would also be of value and help make a difference.
As well, the agri-food sector currently faces unprecedented levels of risk and uncertainty, from inflation and trade and supply chain disruptions to pandemic-related challenges and extreme weather events. The Risk Management Program is a shared premium insurance program between government and industry and increasing the annual investment from $150 million to $250 million would help manage that risk, strengthen food security and support growth in the sector.
And finally, not every way to support the sector involves new spending by government. It’s great to see the government’s recognition of the economic benefits of increasing made-in-Ontario food consumption, and we see a lot of untapped potential in this area. A 10% Ontario grown food procurement policy for government and the broader public sector wouldn’t increase the budget, but would add positive economic impact across the food chain.
Investments such as these will grow Ontario, while moving us towards Farms and Food Forever.
Read OFA’s full pre-budget submission outlining priorities and recommendations for Ontario’s agriculture industry here.