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Farmers more stable with provincial aid

TORONTO STAR

Premier Dalton McGuinty at a pre-election rally.

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August 27, 2007

Not only is food becoming more local, so is support for those who grow it.

In Ontario, farm support took a decidedly provincial turn last Wednesday when Premier Dalton McGuinty gave his final blessings to a farmer-devised support program for grains and oilseed farmers, one that's been in the making for two years.

It was designed to be a three-part program, with support from farmers (who would pay premiums), the province and the federal government. It would help farmers cope with losses from low grain and oilseed prices, and kick in when prices dipped below unprofitable levels.

Sounds good. But the program hit a snag in Ottawa. Hard-nosed agriculture and agri-food minister Chuck Strahl, a western Canadian minister, served notice earlier this summer the federal Conservative government would not participate. He said Ottawa preferred a wide-sweeping national program and wanted to get away from what it calls "companion" programs in various provinces, such as the one proposed by Ontario farmers.

Following the recent federal cabinet shuffle, Strahl moved to Indian and Northern Affairs. That left the matter unresolved and with his replacement, Gerry Ritz, another western Canadian minister.

But Ontario, which was originally cautious then later warmed up to the idea put forward by its own farmers, decided not to wait for Ottawa to get onside — especially with a provincial election around the corner. In Picton, home region for provincial agriculture and agri-food minister Leona Dombrowsky, the premier announced Ontario would take part in the long-discussed farm support program, on a three-year trial basis.

He committed Ontario to fund 40 per cent of the program. And he said he hoped Ottawa would reconsider its position and come through with the other 60 per cent of the plan, the portion it has traditionally put into big farm support programs.

The program will potentially affect 25,000 grain and oilseed farmers, who grow crops valued at $1.7 billion. That's a lot of rural votes and a significant part of the Ontario economy.

And although the timing is likely more than coincidental, the premier deserves credit for recognizing the democratic nature of this program.

Farmers across the province worked together to create it, holding numerous town hall meetings and making sure their colleagues were onside. They knew they needed an approach beyond simply asking for money; they knew they'd get more sympathy and support by willingly contributing premiums.

Prices for their crops are rising, and if they don't need the money, there won't be payouts. However, their expenses are growing, too. And prices have been so chronically depressed for so long, they have a lot of catching up to do. According to the new program's structure, Ontario isn't requiring farmers to pay any premiums this year, giving them an even better headstart.

Does this sound like a farmer-friendly government? It does to me. Some farmers will bemoan yet more red tape that will inevitably go with making contributions and collecting payments. And indeed, bureaucracy is something that's made farmers hostile toward governments. Still others will say support programs reduce farmers' entrepreneurial nature.

But overall, the farm community thinks this is a good program, drawing praise from leaders such as Leo Guilbeault, chair of the self-proclaimed grain and oilseed safety net committee.

He wasn't exactly gushing over the provincial support, but nonetheless he thanked the McGuinty government for committing its share, adding it was "one more step" towards helping ensure the long-term viability of Ontario agriculture.

The only downside here may be that farmers who want to be part of the program must participate through the largely unloved Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program. It's been under the microscope for its management practices, but now the province appears to be showing faith in it again.

That aside, democracy has been served. Farmers said they wanted a program, took the initiative to assemble it and get the industry behind it, then the province bought in. Makes sense.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.

OWEN ROBERTS

Owen Roberts – journalist, columnist, educator – provides an urban perspective on agri-food issues.

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