Ontario's looking to agriculture to help drag it out of the economic doldrums.
The agri-food sector here is responsible for about 700,000 jobs, and food can hardly be looked upon as a luxury. In fact, some even call the agri-food sector recession proof, although that's questionable, because many of the same problems that dog the manufacturing sector (tight credit, foreign competition, stingy consumers) also plague farming.
But overall, farming perseveres. Pushed mainly by international pressure, the agri-food sector has been to the brink enough that it knows how to survive tough times.
However, we're asking more of it than we ever did. Once, we mainly wanted farming to keep us fed by providing safe, affordable and abundant food. Still, we strived to pay as little as we possibly could for food and complained about its high price, even though Canada has among the lowest-priced food in the world.
Now, though, we are also looking to agriculture to bolster our pension plans, rescue our winter vacations and help us survive the dreaded credit card statements that start piling up this week. We need the sector to help the economy by maintaining and creating processing, retail, transportation and manufacturing jobs of its own.
For example, green energy and green industries all lead to potentially sustainable employment, and they start with people who know how to manage natural, renewable resources.
Those people are farmers. They also do a lot that doesn't show up in the ledger, such as maintain wildlife habitat and provide vistas that make the countryside such a desirable destination.
But if farming is going to help the economy, Canada has to be prepared to help farming.
That's not a stretch. Canadians have been extremely generous supporting farmers through tough times, which usually occurred when most other parts of the economy were doing better. Farming's not holding the public for ransom now; it just can't fill some of society's expectations without support.
The drive toward local food has helped nurture a culture that's supportive of local farmers. Despite the Canadian tradition of buying cheap food, people don't seem to mind shelling out more money if they know it's going to stay in their local farm community. Walk into the new Borealis restaurant in Guelph, which specializes in regional cuisine, and check out the larger-than-life posters of the farmers who provide the food for your meal, and you get the point. The value of a domestic food supply is striking a chord.
To maintain the momentum and make sure the economy benefits from agriculture's potential (and vice versa), the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has prepared a to-do list for provincial and federal leaders.
First, it would like to know what happened to a $100-million federal payment that had been promised as part of a 10-year program to help farmers grapple with escalating cost-of-production increases.
When the economy crashed, some expenses went down as well, but they're still high relative to what we are willing to pay for food. And they were out of sight right before the crash, particularly energy. If, in an economic downturn, we want food prices to be more affordable than ever, assistance is needed to keep production costs at the bare minimum.
Also, cattle and hog farmers had been hammered before the crash with low prices, which still haven't recovered. It's estimated that more than 15 per cent of the country's pork producers have left the industry in the past year and a half. The federation wants emergency advances extended for another year to them.
And it also wants programs intensified for new farmers, who need as much encouragement as possible if they are to carry the ball for Ontario's economy.
Says federation president Bette Jean Crews, a Trenton-area farmer: "Compared to other demands from a variety of sectors totalling in the billions of dollars, agriculture's needs may appear small, but they are essential to the country's second largest industry."