Issues all fall under the umbrella of rural economic development
By Kaitlynn Anderson
Many advocates for Ontario’s agri-food sector have some key priorities for voters to consider for the next provincial election, to be held in or before June.
At the OFA’s 2017 Annual General Meeting in Toronto — which had the theme of “Producing Prosperity” — Keith Currie, the organization’s president, presented some of these issues.
Mainly, the OFA and its members would like to see a plan for rural economic development on the table.
“Our message to the four parties and each of their candidates is that rural Ontario and Ontario’s agri-food sector can spearhead future prosperity for this province,” Currie said during his opening speech.
To achieve this goal, the OFA would like to see a government focusing on multiple factors.
More public investment in rural infrastructure
“For farming to remain profitable, we need strong and vibrant communities to ensure services are there for our businesses,” Currie said.
For example, people living in rural areas need to have access to proper input services (i.e. farm input suppliers), reliable internet and dependable roads.
Rural families also need access to services such as hospitals and schools, he said.
“We’ve all seen these services decline in recent years.”
In fact, this decline in services may have painted a negative picture in the mind of urbanites.
The majority of people living in the GTA “believe that rural schools do not provide as good an education as those in cities,” according to a survey conducted by the OFA last year.
Rural Ontario will require proper infrastructure in order to attract skilled workers, Currie stated.
“If we are successful in attracting investment to rural Ontario, we will also be successful at attracting new families to our communities,” he said.
“Access to good paying jobs and good health care are the key concerns of people considering a move to a small Ontario community.”
Realizing the potential of ag
Despite hearing support from the province’s political leaders, “farming is becoming a foreign concept to politicians and the public at large,” Currie said.
Even though some Ontario consumers still lack sufficient access to food, many of the consumers in the province’s urban centres are “food comfortable,” he said. “Food just happens” for them.
Therefore, “average voters – and politicians – do not need to concern themselves with our food supply.”
Due to this, the agri-food sector struggles to “secure strong and bold public policy that recognizes and builds on (its) strength.”
In the Barton Report, agriculture “was identified as the number one opportunity for Canada to experience economic growth,” Currie stated. (The Barton Report was created by the federal finance minister’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which is chaired by Dominic Barton.)
The government should work “to remove major obstacles to growth and set bold ambitions and aspirations in collaboration with the private sector,” the report suggested.
Ontario needs “to recognize this potential, seize this opportunity and develop public policy that can achieve Barton’s vision of agri-food as Canada’s economic powerhouse,” Currie said.
Natural gas expansion
The OFA — and many other organizations, such as the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC) —would like to see an expansion of the natural gas system across rural areas of the province.
“Access to natural gas is needed to allow rural Ontario to be sustainable in the long term and is vital to foster future growth,” the EOWC stated in their February 2017 position paper.
Cumulatively, the province’s residents could see $1 billion in annual “energy cost savings if Ontario invests in providing natural gas across rural Ontario,” Currie said.
“The return on investment is staggering and only one example of how focused public policy can make a huge contribution to economic growth.”
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