by JIM ALGIE
Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal has reported progress in all five key areas of the mandate letter issued by Premier Kathleen Wynne after he took the job in June of 2014.
In a Jan. 11 letter posted online with links to the original mandate letter, Leal told the premier he was “pleased to highlight our progress in achieving many mandate letter commitments.” Some observers of Ontario agriculture policy under Leal and the Wynne government seem less convinced.
Grain Farmers of Ontario has mounted high profile objections to new provincial regulations restricting the use of neonicotenoid pesticides in the face of recent federal research indicating some formulations may not harm pollinating insects after all. As well, some municipalities have identified community issues and apparent inconsistencies in provincial grant programs for rural communities.
Although he acknowledged the criticism in rural Ontario, Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Don McCabe said it’s too early to say how well Leal has fulfilled the terms of his mandate. McCabe also praised the premier’s concept of publicly issuing mandate letters as a measure of government intentions and Leal for his personal performance as minister.
“It’s very easy to say yea or nay and you’ll have half of them mad and half of them glad,” McCabe said when asked to assess Leal’s progress in office. “The reality is it’s a longer term body of work and opportunity to get things done,” he said.
McCabe expressed disappointment in slow progress on provincial programs designed to help extend natural gas service in rural areas, a strong emphasis in OFA policy in recent years. He also praised Leal for avoiding major blunders and excused the minister for controversial neonic regulations he says originate with the provincial Environment Ministry.
“Give the guy a chance to get his job done,” said McCabe of Leal’s performance in office.
“I do want to acknowledge the fact that the mandate letters the premier has put out are a valuable tool to know what the government is headed for not only within the ministry (of Agriculture) but others because the OFA works across ministries,” McCabe said. “We also acknowledge they have taken on a number of projects that in some cases take time to achieve.”
“On the other side of the token, sometimes the issue of delivery really leaves you looking,” the OFA president said. Regarding natural gas extensions, McCabe “would really like to have seen an opportunity for digging and installation of some lines.”
“We lost that in 2015,” McCabe said of expected natural gas pipeline construction because of what he described as “bureaucratic” issues.
“That’s a very vital piece of infrastructure that Ontario farmers should be able to start to see progress on,” he said. Asked about the adequacy of programs to guide government participation in expanded natural gas services, McCabe said, “As we understand it the programs are still under development.”
Leal’s progress report to the premier does list natural gas expansion under the heading: Fostering vibrant rural communities.
“We are also working to ensure access to less expensive energy, like natural gas, under the Natural Gas Access Loan Program and the Natural Gas Economic Development Grant,” the minister’s Jan. 11 report says. That heading of the report also counts new policy on horse racing and new spending under the Community Infrastructure Fund.
It’s among five headings identified in the minister’s letter. The others are: supporting growth of the agri-food sector, ensuring the sustainability of agriculture, business support to farmers and expansion of agriculture in Northern Ontario.
While the premier’s original mandate letter was short on specifics, Leal’s January report provides more detail. Under the agri-food growth heading, he cites establishment of a growth steering committee which has identified three priorities: increased government and industry promotion, stronger advocacy for food processing and a focus on enhancing the competitiveness of medium-sized agri-food businesses.
Under the local food heading, Leal cites the following: $22 million in spending on 163 projects since 2013, the first-ever local food report and $6 million in spending announced in October of 2015 over three years to increase local food sales under the province’s Greenbelt Fund. The letter did not mention that the three year $30-million local food fund is slated to wrap up in March.
Food processors have received $40 million a year in support from the Food and Beverage Growth Fund. A renewed, $28 million wine and grape strategy includes a pilot program that has half of the province’s Vintners’ Quality Assurance wineries selling product at more than 200 farmers markets, the letter says.
Development of a new soils strategy and pollinator health study building on new neonic regulations for the 2016 crop year appear under the mandate’s sustainability heading. Under the mandate to expand agriculture in the north, Leal cites $22 million since 2013 in commitments for agricultural projects under the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.
Regarding business support to farmers, the letter lists ministry support for supply management in federal government trade talks and expansion of crops eligible for crop insurance. It also refers to shared federal/provincial government spending of about $50.5 million, including $7.4 million for “challenges related to the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea outbreak of 2014. BF