by GEOFF DALE
As political opponents in Queen’s Park and Ottawa trade barbs on whether agricultural spending has been cut, farm leaders collaborate to elicit government support.
At the federal level, Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter points to recently released Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada performance report for 2008-2009. The report indicates agriculture program spending dropped to $1.5-billion in 2008-09 from $2.4-billion in 2007-08.
“When hog farmers were facing a crisis through no fault of their own, rather than aid them, this government turned their back on them,” says Easter in a Nov. 17 news release. “$1 billion could have helped farm families significantly in easing their struggles and transforming the industry for the future.”
During the previous year Ottawa delivered about $1-billion directly to farmers through Agri-Invest Kickstart and other initiatives; this year it has delivered $1.4 billion in cash advances, Conservative Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz responds to Easter in a prepared statement for media. Record farm receipts in 2008 meant fewer demands for government assistance, he adds.
Calling the dispute a “political” issue at present, Canadian Pork Council spokesman Gary Stordy says he’s not aware of funding cuts so far.
“Any type of reduction or loss of programs available to ag sectors is something that comes at a difficult time,” Stordy says. “It is something we have to look into further.”
Meanwhile in Queen’s Park, Progressive Conservative agriculture critic Ernie Hardeman says public documents reveal discrepancies between the planned and actual amount of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ business risk management transfers.
In a Nov. 18 news release, Hardeman notes Ontario Estimates documents released with the 2008 budget documents indicated $277,469,500 would be transferred. Public accounts documents released this fall say the Treasury Board reallocated $82,600,000 of that sum.
The minister’s communications advisor Kelly Synnott says the numbers do not represent a reduction but simply the difference between government estimates and public accounts: “The nature of our programs are demand driven so in any given year we set aside a certain amount of money, so it’s there if needed.”
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Bette Jean Crews says she has no concrete information on an $82-million shortfall in provincial agricultural risk management funding. “I’ve heard the talk and hallway chatter but we have no breakdown on that figure.”
Crews, who is working on the united message coalition with pork, beef, horticulture, veal and grains and oilseeds producers, says “if support is being withdrawn or not taken up, that means the program wasn’t designed right and that’s where we need more input.”
That’s where the coalition will come in, she adds.
Ontario Cattlemen’s Association executive director Dave Stewart says he doesn’t have information on the topic but may know more following a meeting with Hardeman this week.
Calling it “speculative at best” to answer questions on how and where shortfalls would hurt the industry, Ontario Pork’s director of communications Keith Robbins notes that “if there is no cash that makes it harder for us to find locations to source dollars.”
The coalition is showing that agriculture plays a significant role in the provincial economy, he says, adding every primary producer creates seven jobs. “There is a huge economic spin-off from agriculture for the economy in general.” BF