Almost everyone would agree Donald Trump is not recognized as a calming, uniting force. But in a curious way, his presidency may be part of what’s going to drive Canada’s agri-food sector towards new levels of cooperation in 2017.
Like other countries, we’re worried about how much Trump’s extremism could fracture trade, turn exports on their heads and send our agri-food sector reeling.
And that realization may be what sparked the unusual effort I saw towards the end of the year to let bygones be bygones, face our competitors and move ahead.
To start with, the province’s biggest general farm group, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), extended an olive branch to one of the province’s most influential commodity groups, Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO).
The federation’s new president, Keith Currie, called Ontario’s agri-political scene fractured, specifically mentioning the strained relationship between the federation and the grain farmers. He said it needed fixing, and stressed the need for togetherness by all groups if the sector was to heal and advance.
A little earlier, GFO had done some reflecting of its own. It turned heads with its unusually restrained response to a federal government proposal to phase out a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid. The organization said it couldn’t argue for evidence-based decisions by federal regulators on one hand, then criticize them for such decisions on the other.
This all followed the provincial environment minister admitting at the OFA’s annual convention that he used too heavy a hand when dealing with farmers over the neonicotinoid matter, which resulted in a court challenge and some of the most acrimonious feelings I can remember between farmers and the province. He apologized and offered to work together more.
And earlier in the year, several leading farm groups, including the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, joined hands to form the one-for-all, all-for-one Grow Ontario Together. It’s described as “a collaboration of agriculture organizations that recognize the need to work together – with each other, with the public, with environmentalists, with municipalities, concerned citizens and with governments.”
This coming together happened months before the U.S. election; at the time, it was the province these groups were most concerned about. Now, compared to Trump, the province looks docile.
Most lately, concerns have been raised about the possibility of Trump’s presidency causing food prices in Canada to rise in 2017. The thinking is that he’s threatened to deport illegal immigrant workers, which will have a huge impact on farm labour. Fruit and vegetable growers, who rely on these workers so much for manual labour, may feel it more than any other producers.
Canada struggles mightily with farm labour problems, too. At an outlook event in November at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) headquarters in Guelph, panellist Alison Robertson, executive director of the OFVGA, expressed her concerns about the farm labour situation.
The sector, she said, “is on an unsustainable path.”
At the outlook event, a potential solution put forward to the chronic labour crunch was robotics, particularly in greenhouses. Robertson says robots could allow a farmer to focus less on manual labour, and more on creating value.
Next door to the OMAFRA headquarters, at the University of Guelph, progress is being made on robots for greenhouses, ones that could offer consumers information they’re coming to expect with many other commodities – like “smart” greenhouse tomatoes, in which each piece of fruit has its own production history and nutritional profile, based on coding from the robot that nurtured it and harvested it.
This kind of research is needed to help prepare the sector for the challenges that not only lie ahead, but are in fact here now.
Here’s to a prosperous and collaborative New Year.