by SUSAN MANN
Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin says it’s unclear what effect the $252.9 million cut to the federal agriculture department and the government’s plan to refocus national business risk management programs will have on farmers.
But he says it’s important to him that Ontario farmers have a say in what’s in the next national agricultural policy agreement and how national support programs might be adjusted. McMeekin, named agriculture minister by Premier Dalton McGuinty after last fall’s provincial election, will attend his first federal, provincial, territorial agriculture ministers meeting. It’s being held Friday in Aylmer, Quebec.
At the one-day meeting, the ministers will develop the next cohesive agricultural policy framework called Growing Forward 2. It’s the successor to the current five-year Growing Forward agricultural policy framework that expires on March 31, 2013. The new one is supposed to be in place for April 1, 2013.
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says there needs to be some proposals put forward at the meeting because “they’re running out of time.”
Wales says he expects the meeting will trigger additional consultations for later this spring. As part of the federal government’s first step in the national and regional dialogue with stakeholders, consultations were held in the spring of 2010.
The Friday ministers’ meeting will be the first one “where all of the provincial ministers and the federal minister will actually talk about what Growing Forward 2 is really going to look like,” he says.
What the federation wants to see “is no fundamental change to the safety net programs.” But there are some improvements to AgriStability the Ontario industry has been seeking for some time, Wales says, noting AgriInvest also needs some improvements.
Recently announced federal research station cuts concern the federation. “If we’re going to be innovative in the future we need to have a long-term commitment to research for agriculture,” Wales says.
McMeekin says he’ll be looking for flexibility in how funds are spent and that Ontario receives its fair share. He also hopes the federal government approaches the talks in the spirit of partnership as it and provinces share jurisdiction for agriculture in Canada.
Since the federal government and provinces jointly fund many of the business risk management programs, “we want to make sure that we’re working collaboratively,” he says. He also wants to find out what impact the cuts to the federal agriculture department announced in last month’s budget will have on research and innovation, farmers and on “what we want to do here in Ontario, which is to grow our agricultural products, enhance our capacity to export and continue to build on relationships between producers and processors.”
It’s important the federal government understands the critically important role the agricultural sector plays in the overall economic development of Ontario and Canada.
“It’s the one sector that through the recession seemed to do quite well,” he explains.
McMeekin says on Tuesday he talked to 30 Ontario farm leaders by conference call to get their priorities. One thing farm leaders told him was supply management is important and he’ll be looking for an unequivocal assurance at the meeting that the federal government continues to support the sector.
“We keep hearing rumblings that different trade agreements might have some impact and to their (the federal government’s) credit they have given fairly solid assurances to date but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put it on the agenda,” he notes.
Federal agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says in an email that similar to farmers who constantly adjust their businesses as market and weather conditions change “so too must government make sure that our policies and programs are hitting the target in a modern and competitive environment.”
Ritz says ministers will be charting the way towards the launch of next year’s agricultural policy framework focusing on initiatives that will return the best dividends to the farm gate, such as market development and innovation.
As for what decisions might come out of the meeting, McMeekin says any decisions will likely “be around directions” and the process of program development between now and early July. BF