Earlier this year, Ontario came through a provincial election, and as I write this, the new legislative session has just begun. Different people have different feelings about the outcome of the election, but as chair of a lobby organization working on behalf of farmers, I can tell you that there are benefits to consistency.
That’s because government relations and advocacy are built on relationships, and it takes time to cultivate the kind of trust and understanding that results in a willingness to work together to find solutions. And as we all know, horticulture is a complex industry with many crops and diverse operations and production methods – and it can take time for those outside the sector to come to have a good understanding of who we are and what we do.
In this new government, the ministers of portfolios particularly important to horticulture remain unchanged from the previous session. We are eager to resume our work with Minister of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs Lisa Thompson, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks David Piccini and Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton.
We are also looking forward to getting to know the two new Parliamentary Assistants to the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Rob Flack, MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London, and Trevor Jones, MPP for Chatham-Kent-Leamington. And we hope to meet with many MPPs, ministers and their staff at our upcoming fall Queen’s Park event, which is returning in-person after a two-year hiatus.
Since March 2020, most of the time of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) has been spent with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been the dominant challenge. Now, we have an opportunity to return our focus to other issues that also affect our industry and our farms: the business of feeding people and ensuring our sector can grow sustainably, profitably and competitively.
Here are some of those issues:
The biggest problem facing our industry currently is the share of the consumer dollar that goes to growers. Food prices for consumers have been rising, but there’s been no comparative increase in the prices that growers receive for the crops we sell.
We produce in a global market, making us price takers with little to no ability to pass along cost increases as other sectors can, and we face strong pressure from retailers. This is a time of extraordinary pressures on our industry, as we’re dealing with inflation, supply chain shortages and delays, labour issues and other challenges that combine to make our production costs higher than in many other parts of the world.
That’s part of what makes strong business risk management programming so important for growers. We appreciate the work of Minister Thompson in helping to secure improvements to those programs for the next agricultural policy framework at the recent federal-provincial-territorial ministers of agriculture meeting. These are changes fruit and vegetable growers, along with many other sectors, have long been asking for.
We are also encouraging the provincial government to increase funding for the Risk Management Program/Self-Directed Risk Management program. Together with our partners in the Ontario Agriculture Sustainability Coalition, we are asking for an extra $100 million in funding for all participating commodities combined to help alleviate some of these pressures and provide growers with more of a safety net.
Another major issue facing many Ontario growers currently are challenges surrounding Environmental Compliance Approvals (ECAs). These are permits issued by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks related to emissions and discharges; in this case, they are specific to vegetable wash water in the Holland Marsh and stormwater in greenhouse production. They are also required for septic system installations for some larger on-farm worker housing projects.
ECA targets are not consistent between farms or regions, and the process to obtain an ECA – not to implement it – is expensive and lengthy. As well, many Compliance Officers are taking an enforcement approach when visiting farms rather than supporting growers in improving their environmental performance.
It’s an issue serious enough to result in some growers leaving the sector or deciding against expansion of their businesses in Ontario. OFVGA has brought this issue to the attention of Minister Piccini in hopes of finding solutions that balance the need for efficient domestic food production with the province’s environmental goals.