by SUSAN MANN
The Ontario agriculture ministry has no plans to bring in any additional barn safety regulations in the wake of four recent barn fires across Ontario this month killing hundreds of pigs, goats, cattle and horses.
Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal says the federal government already has regulations dealing with the building code for barns. On the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website it says the Ontario Building Code, 2006, allows farm building construction to be regulated by the National Farm Building Code of Canada, 1995.
Since early this month there have been four major fires including one that killed 43 horses at a training facility near Guelph. Another blaze killed 13 Arabian horses outside Mount Forest. Five hundred goats and 30 cattle were killed in a fire Jan. 17 near London and more than 2,000 pigs were killed in another fire Jan. 19 near Parkhill.
“These fires are very tragic events,” Leal says. “They impact individuals, they impact families.”
Referring to comments made recently by Don McCabe, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Leal says he similarly urges people in the agricultural community and operators of Ontario’s 52,000 family farms to be “constantly vigilant in terms of the operation of their farms and identify, on a daily basis, any potential hazards that may exist in a barn.”
Examples of vigilance includes ensuring there are fire extinguishers in barns and people should have an awareness of combustible materials being too close to heaters or heat lamps, he says.
Leal made the comments in a wide-ranging telephone interview Wednesday where he also discussed the ministry’s priorities for the year, the Ontario Agriculture Sustainability Coalition’s request to raise the $100 million annual cap on the Ontario business risk management program by $25 million a year over three years, the pilot project to sell Ontario wines at farmers’ markets, the ministry’s plans to release a pollinator health strategy for Ontario this year and other matters.
Leal says his priorities this year include looking at ways to position the agri-food sector for continued growth and success. “We’ll continue by supporting primary production in Ontario through research and innovation, business risk management programs and funding strategic investments to strength the value chain through the Jobs and Prosperity Fund, the Rural Economic Development Fund and Growing Forward 2.”
Leal says the ministry will also continue working with leaders in all sectors of the agricultural economy in Ontario and modernize the province’s regulatory framework. The ministry will continue promoting the Ontario agri-food sector internationally including at the tri-national accord meeting this fall in Niagara Falls. Officials from Canada, the United States and Mexico will be involved in that meeting being hosted by Ontario for the first time ever.
Another major meeting this year will be the rural summit, being planned for the summer to build “on the work we did in the first rural summit in Cobourg in 2014,” Leal says.
“We want to continue to position Ontario as a growth leader,” he notes. Last year, about 34,000 new jobs were created in the broader agri-food sector in Ontario, increasing the province’s GDP by 1.6 per cent. Employment increased by 2.2 per cent in the agri-food sector last year, and exports were up by 5.5 per cent, he says.
The sector is in a good position to reach the goal set by Premier Kathleen Wynne in 2013 of creating 120,000 new jobs by 2020. Leal says, “we’re very impressed the Ontario agri-food industry has embraced the premier’s challenge.”
About government economic development programs, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s said in her 2015 annual report released in December that there isn’t a government measurement of whether the $1.45 billion given to businesses from 2004 to May 31, 2015 as either loans or grants actually strengthens the economy or made recipients more competitive. She also noted that there is no government plan in place to measure the outcome of future economic development and employment programs like the Jobs and Prosperity Fund.
In response, Leal says he “believes any investments that we’ve made in the agri-food sector have been extremely helpful. By making those investments, we’re allowing our agri-food processors in Ontario to be more innovative, more productive, and we’re giving them a platform to export around the world.”
The Ontario Agriculture Sustainability Coalition wants the government to raise the cap on the Ontario business risk management program currently set at $100 million annually by $25 million a year over three years. Leal says he’ll continue meeting with all farm groups, particularly as the government starts preparing its 2016/17 budget, to listen to their submissions.
“I’ll be reaching out to all of our groups in Ontario to hear their good advice,” he says.
About the two-year pilot project to sell Ontario VAQ wines at farmers markets that began in 2014, Leal says the project has been very successful and “we’re doing our analysis of it right now.” As for fruit wineries being included to sell their products at farmers’ markets, Leal says “we’re very aware of their concerns. We continue to look at all opportunities to widen the market for agricultural products in Ontario.”
On the pollinator health strategy for Ontario, Leal says that will be coming out “over the next number of months. We all need to recognize healthy pollinators are a key component to healthy agriculture in Ontario and all of our farm people are very concerned about that.” BF