by SUSAN MANN
Jeff Leal, newly appointed agriculture, food and rural affairs minister, says one of his priorities is to “build on the great work by Premier (Kathleen) Wynne when she was minister of agriculture and food.”
That includes continuing with the Local Food Act initiative “that has proved very, very popular throughout Ontario” along with encouraging the agri-food industry to meet the premier’s challenge issued last fall to create 120,000 jobs and double its annual growth rate by 2020. The sector contributes $34 billion to Ontario’s GDP and it’s important to the government to determine “how we can look at opportunities to make strategic investments in that sector,” says the Peterborough MPP, who was rural affairs minister before the June 12 election.
Leal says 40 per cent of his riding is rural “and we have a very vibrant agricultural sector in Peterborough County. I’ve worked very closely over 11 years with all the individuals who are involved in that sector. They know who I am.”
He also notes he’s had experience with the agricultural side of his ministry during his time as rural affairs minister. When Wynne held the position of agriculture minister before the election, often when she wasn’t available due to commitments she had as premier, Leal says “I would be meeting with stakeholder groups and out speaking to a variety of groups. I look forward to renewing relationships with them and building new relationships with others.”
On the rural affairs side of his ministry, Leal says one of his priorities includes the efficient implementation of the $100 million infrastructure fund for small, rural and northern municipalities and working on the “initiative to expand infrastructure for natural gas in Ontario, which has been a key part of our platform and something that was recommended to us by (Ontario Federation of Agriculture president) Mark Wales.”
As for when that expansion will begin, Leal says to “stay tuned.” The government plans to deliver its Throne Speech on July 3 “and many of the initiatives that were outlined quite clearly in our (election) platform I believe will make their way into parts of the Speech from the Throne.”
Leal says his newly elected government will also deliver a budget but no date for its release has been announced yet. “It will be a reintroduction of the budget we introduced on May 1 that did not get the confidence of the house.”
The agriculture and rural affairs minister didn’t say he would raise the cap on the business risk management program to $175 million a year from its current level of $100 million annually as requested by the Ontario Agricultural Sustainability Coalition during the election campaign. But he did say he would talk to all of the commodity groups “on a wide variety of issues” in the immediate future. “It would be my opportunity to listen very seriously to what they’re saying with regards to risk management programs and other issues.”
On the matter of chicken supply allocation, which is one of the concerns of the Ontario Independent Poultry Processors, Leal says he can’t comment on something that’s before the Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal but “we’re certainly aware of the issue related to processing capacity and certainly allocation and it’s something that ministry officials will continue to monitor.”
The independent poultry processors has appealed Chicken Farmers of Ontario’s specialty market policy to the tribunal and the hearing is scheduled for July 14 and 15 in Guelph.
Asked if he was concerned about the situation, Leal says he’s “certainly aware of some issues in the chicken industry in the province. That’s something that’s very important to us all.”
Some of the concerns of people in the industry are in the process of being addressed, such as the future of Kemptville and Alfred colleges. Leal says facilitators will be engaged “shortly. They will be looking at all of the potential opportunities” and once their work is done “there will be a series of recommendations to look at a long-term solution to Kemptville and Alfred.”
About the property tax assessment of grain elevators, currently industrial but the agricultural industry wants it changed to commercial, Leal says “I do believe that change is in the works.” And the Liberal government supports making that change. Farming industry representatives have been working to get that assessment changed for more than three years.
On the need for increased food literacy and food education in schools, Leal says his wife, Karen, is an elementary school principal in Peterborough. There are four school boards in Peterborough and Leal says when he talks to their representatives he takes the “opportunity to drive that very point home. It really is part in parcel of the Local Food Act.” BF