Agriculture was one of the few sectors outside of health mentioned in Ontario’s 2020 budget.
Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said the budget predominantly focused on health care as part of its COVID-19 response but also recognized the importance of agriculture.
Why it matters: When policy-makers specifically cite agriculture in the Ontario budget, it signals the sector’s importance to the overall economy.
“It was a very good budget recognizing what needed to be done,” said Hardeman. “(But) also deals with making sure going forward we’re building an economy we are going to need.”
The budget addressed key areas within agriculture via a $25.5 million cash injection over three years to the Agri-Food Prevention and Control Innovation Program, additional funding for broadband and cellular infrastructure, seasonal foreign worker (SFW) programming, financial support for agricultural and horticultural societies and supporting economic and sector growth through interprovincial trade.
The Agri-Food Prevention and Control Innovation Program (AFPCIP) funds will help offset investments made to reduce the potential for business operation disruptions and risks due to COVID-19 exposure in the workplace.
Within the AFPCIP funding, $1.5 million is earmarked for programs and services that assist foreign worker integration into their adopted communities by providing information in their first language and participation in local sports, social events and activities.
“I live in a community with a lot of people who weren’t born here or who haven’t been here very long,” Hardeman said. “Why is that different when they (SFWs) come here year after year but only stay for seven or eight months?
“Our horticulture sector would die on the vine without the labour coming in,” he said, adding foreign workers “deserve our respect just as much as if they’d been here year-round.”
Keith Currie, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president, said he was pleased the province recognized the the important role foreign workers play in agriculture’s labour force and the challenges the pandemic has placed on the industry, specifically horticulture.
Currie said the Ontario government’s recognition of labour force challenges and its impact on agriculture, particularly horticulture, has been welcome.
Without a reliable workforce, production is lost, he said, adding the inclusivity funding aimed at foreign workers is a good investment given the amount of money those workers pump back into the local economy.
“It’s a good economic investment, but the big bonus is we get our crops planted,” he said. “We grow our crops for the season, we get them harvested and further process them creating jobs here in Ontario.”
The budget also highlighted the growth potential of interprovincial trade and aims to remove more internal trade barriers.
Hardeman said that if the provincial government believes provincially inspected goods are safe, and of high quality, those goods should be acceptable to other provinces.
“I have no concern with what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s a matter of we’re one country and I think we should be opening up that (interprovincial trade).”
E-commerce investment multiplies through economy
COVID-19 triggered a better understanding of the importance of a viable, safe and effective provincial and national food production system, he said.
To that end, many urbanites began sourcing their protein and produce from local producers when they saw shortages on grocery shelves. The government’s investment in a $2.5 million e-commerce program was fully subscribed in days by producers anxious to provide touchless farmgate sales.
“It made a hell of a difference to a lot of people to be able to set up a platform online and sell their product locally,” he said. “That was huge.”
Currie said that investment likely multiplied into several million dollars of increased business, taxes and decreased the need to access the Risk Management Program (RMP) funds.
“If I create three jobs through this initiative, those three people are now paying taxes,” he said. “That $2.5 million in the e-commerce platform will probably generate the government 100 times that when all is said and done… if there’s even a way you can measure it.”
Fairs and exhibitions also get funds
COVID-19 had a huge impact on horticultural and agricultural societies, cancelling fairs and exhibitions and putting them at risk of financial ruin and closure.
Yearly fairs are not only the main source of revenue for horticulture and agriculture societies, they’re required for the groups to qualify for government funding.
“If they didn’t have some help, two years from now neither one would exist,” said Hardeman.
The province enabled a one-time change in eligibility requirements for annual grants, said Hardeman, and provided an additional $5 million in funding to help offset the loss of revenue from cancelled agricultural exhibitions and fairs.