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Tories have big funding promise for farmers

No matter which way you voted, if you're a farmer, you'll be glad to know Stephen Harper has a $500-million-plus plan for you.

A week or so before the federal election Better Farming magazine online (www.betterfarming.com) scoured the major parties' farm platform. It discovered the Conservatives had pledged a half-billion dollars to agriculture in their True North Strong and Free party platform.

Included in the plan was $1.5 billion over the next seven years to support biofuel production. The Conservatives will require gasoline to contain five per cent renewable content by 2010, while diesel will need to have two per cent renewable content by 2012.

Further, the plan includes $500 million over the next four years to help farm families cope with cost of production pressures, promote innovation, ensure environmental sustainability and respond to provincial market opportunities and challenges.

And there's more. The Conservatives say they will spend $50 million to strengthen slaughter capacity in various regions of Canada (including the east, perhaps?) to support beef, dairy and other livestock sectors. As well, they'll cut the federal excise tax on diesel in half to two cents a litre from four cents a litre. It's reported this will save farmers $47 million a year.

As well, the Conservatives will continue to implement their Food Safety Action Plan and invest $160 million over the next four years in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency so it can hire new inspectors. That, they say, will help it track imports better and improve safety systems.

Finally, the Conservatives say they'll continue supporting supply-managed sectors in national and international negotiations, if indeed global trade talks ever start again. And they'll invest in new rural infrastructure in rural communities "where farmers live."

This sounds pretty good to me. I don't think the Tories could put enough money into food safety programs or food inspection right now, given the recent problems we've had with listeriosis. The excise tax cut will be welcomed, as will the support for slaughter capacity.

The investment in research is vague, but will no doubt be expanded on over the next few weeks as the finance minister rolls out his hastily constructed economic plan.

Hopefully it won't get short shrift, because research is essential to an innovative agri-food sector. Indeed, support for biofuel production needs a strong research component so scientists can figure out the true economics behind it, as well as biofuels' implications on crop production factors such as soil health. Problems can arise when the biomass normally returned to the earth after harvest is used for other purposes such as making fuel.

But I don't think the Conservatives' platform really had much to do with their success in rural Canada. Despite fumbling food safety matters throughout the fall, they won more seats than they had in the previous government.

Even though they viciously attacked and tried dismembering the Canadian Wheat Board — and failed — they practically swept the West, where farmers are extremely emotional and split down the middle on their support of the board.

In Saskatchewan, voters in the home riding of nationally unpopular agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, who raised hackles with bad jokes about listeriosis and had people across the country calling for his resignation, returned him by way more than a 2:1 margin over his nearest competitor, an NDP candidate, and almost a 7:1 margin over the Liberal.

All this makes no sense if the opposition was seen as an alternative. But clearly, it wasn't.

Early forecasts suggest the new government will be more conciliatory than its former self, and interested in co-operating with other parties. Let's hope so for Ontario's sake, where the provincial Liberals and the farm community are working together extremely well and don't need a partisan federal-provincial bun fight to ruin a well-oiled machine.

A burning issue among farmers is whether provinces such as Ontario will be given some much-desired flexibility to parcel out the millions of federal farm dollars being promised by Ottawa.

The old Harper government seemed committed, then went limp. The new one can show it's different right away by getting off the fence.

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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