Plea from farmers: Save our farms

Ontario’s farmers are using a town hall meeting in Stratford today to reach out to the public. The Save our Farms forum will focus on the beleaguered state of Ontario’s farming sector and on what the future of an Ontario without farming could look like down the road if nothing is done.

The past several years have been tough ones for farmers producing beef and pork. The same is true of Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers. Many of their businesses, like our manufacturing sector, have been battered by the high Canadian dollar. They’ve also been struggling with rising costs. Now this isn’t unique to farming, but what is, however, is the fact that unlike many other sectors of the economy, farmers aren’t able to pass these higher costs along to their customers.

Prices for fruits and vegetables, for example, are set by the lowest available world market price. If Canadian farmers try to set their prices to ensure they’re making enough money to pay for what it cost them to grow their crops, buyers will quickly turn elsewhere if a better deal is to be had. A look at many Canadian supermarket shelves filled with low priced US pork and beef shows the same thing happening to hog and cattle farmers.

About the only food producers not facing pricing pressure at the grocery store are those farming under supply management. This system, implemented more than three decades ago in poultry and dairy, means that the supply of milk, chicken, eggs and turkey produced by farmers is carefully matched to domestic demand for those products.

Although under consistent fire from the World Trade Organization seeking more open markets, dairy and poultry farmers value this system because it ensures a fair and stable price for both consumers and farmers.

A report commissioned by the federal and provincial governments to look at the future of the tender fruit, apple and fresh grape industries in Ontario offers some answers. The study by Deloitte, released this week, says that farmers have a huge opportunity to meet rising consumer demand at home for locally grown produce.

To do so, the report recommends that Ontario’s fruit farmers need to consolidate more of their operations, work with consumer packaged goods experts to help develop and promote products, and focus more on high-value niche markets.

Perhaps another answer lies in Canada’s evolving demographics. Instead of changing how we grow or market, there is also the opportunity to change what we grow. Currently, our homegrown offering is quite traditional and reflective of the European roots of both our farmers and many Canadian consumers.

But consider this. A Statistics Canada population report estimates that by 2031, nearly half of the country’s population over the age of 15 will either be foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent.

Within the next two decades, the South Asian population will double from 1.3 million in 2006 to between three and four million, and the Chinese population is expected to increase from 2.4 million to three million people. That’s a significant market and we could well have the ability to grow and produce many of the foods traditional to these cultures.

Farmers who are not in the supply managed system – those producing grains and oilseeds, fruits and vegetables, pork, veal, lamb and beef – are calling on the government for long term support infrastructure to save family farms, protect jobs and ensure our food security.

They have the support of other farmers too – as one turkey farmer told me last week, Ontario does well when all, not just some, of its farmers do well.

After all, Ontario’s agri-food sector, which used to be second to only the automotive industry, is now considered by many to be the most important sector of the economy, contributing over 700,000 jobs and $28 billion annually.

I’m not sure what the ultimate answer or solution is, but I do know that it’s important that we work to find one.

Read this editorial in the Guelph Mercury.

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