Long awaited support for local food and farming

There was good news in the provincial budget for farmers this week. The Ontario government announced new, permanent risk-management programs that farmers have long been asking for to help bring some much needed stability to notoriously fluctuating farm incomes.

Farm leaders have been making their case both federally and provincially about the need for this kind of support for a long time. A pilot program specifically for farmers who grow grains and oilseeds, like soybeans and canola, was announced four years ago and its success made it a model for other agricultural sectors also in need of long-term stability, like pork, beef, veal and fruits and vegetables.

What makes farming so special that they need government-supported risk-management programs? Agriculture is a tough, complicated business. The cost of many inputs needed to grow crops and raise livestock, like labour, energy, fuel, feed and fertilizer, have skyrocketed in recent years. The need to be compliant with new rules and regulations imposed by both government and food buyers has added additional expenditures.

Many other sectors have also seen their costs increase, but unlike those sectors, farmers here can’t just pass along a cost increase to their customers. We live in a global marketplace and if the price of our food products is too high, our buyers will just turn elsewhere — whether it’s to pork or beef from the United States or fruits and vegetables from Asia or Europe.

This leaves our farmers forced to sell below their cost of production just to move their product, and we all know that’s no way to stay in business over the long-term. Now, after years of decline and losses, it seems as though the government has finally listened. At least in Ontario.

Cynics among us would look only to the provincial election on the horizon this fall and point to the many rural Ontario ridings that the governing Liberals would either like to keep or wrest from the hands of the opposition as the reason for the government’s change of heart on new risk management programming for farmers.

There is surely an element of truth to that observation, but there is a bigger picture of food and farming that needs to be considered — and one that I like to think that the Ontario government gets.

The way I see it, we are in serious trouble as a society and as a country if we lose the ability to feed ourselves. Yes, we can source food internationally, but one need only look to Japan and other countries where a suddenly striking disaster can throw the very foundations of orderly society upside down.

If we lose that infrastructure through long-term, gradual decline — older farmers retire, young farmers no longer enter the industry, suppliers of feed, seed and other inputs go out of business and processing plants shut down — we will be hard-pressed to get it back, if we can at all.

Farming also supports an awful lot of jobs in Ontario. In fact, given the decline of the once-mighty Ontario auto industry, agriculture is now considered by many the largest sector in the provincial economy. Horticulture alone supports over 30,000 on-farm jobs — this number does not include family members who work as part of a family farm business — and a further 8,700 arms-length jobs specific to horticulture and specialty crops.

Government support programs for agriculture have traditionally been funded 60 per cent by the federal government and 40 per cent by their provincial counterparts. Farmers themselves will be contributing financially to the cost of these newly announced initiatives too, but the federal government is still absent from the table, leaving the programs less than fully funded.

Farmers feed us, provide jobs and help sustain our economy and rural infrastructures. To me, that’s reason enough to ask federal election candidates where they stand on meaningful support for Canadian food and farming. Food is fundamental and that makes this not just a farm issue, but one that affects us all.

This editorial was first published in the Guelph Mercury on March 31, 2011.

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