We’re now into the final weeks of the provincial election, and Election Day will soon be upon us. Many Ontarians have already had a chance to engage with candidates to talk about the key issues and how their parties would address them.
That’s what the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has been actively doing. Even before the election began, we’d been taking time to meet with candidates from all the major parties to talk about the election priorities of Ontario’s farmers and rural communities. It provided us with an opportunity to voice our concerns and thoughts on agriculture and create increased awareness about the economic benefits that we bring to the province.
We made a particular effort to connect with candidates in urban ridings because it’s our belief that building prosperity in rural Ontario brings prosperity to all regions of the province. My family and I farm in a rural area in northern Simcoe County, but I also represent farmers in Peel and York Regions. All three of these municipalities have a mix of urban and rural communities, and I regularly see how we can all benefit by even more distribution of economic development in Ontario.
That’s the perspective I brought to the table when I, along with some of my fellow farmers, was able to sit down with candidates from various urban ridings in the months leading up to the election and have valuable conversations about the issues that matter most.
Investing in rural communities
Those of us who live in rural Ontario have long known about the disparities in infrastructure and services across the province, and the pandemic has only served to magnify those differences.
From farmers to our diverse food processing industry, the agri-food sector is a vital contributor to the provincial economy, supporting over 860,400 jobs and more than $47 billion in GDP annually. And throughout the pandemic, this sector worked tirelessly to ensure our domestic food supply chain remained viable with fully stocked shelves in grocery stores, at farmers’ markets and with wholesale providers.
We know that agriculture will be a leading driver of Ontario’s economic recovery, but to keep the sector profitable and productive, we need strong and vibrant communities with the infrastructure to support growth.
Ontario’s rural economy relies on properly constructed and maintained roads, bridges, and proper drainage to support the growth and transportation of goods and services. That’s why we need investments into the critical infrastructure that will attract new families and businesses to rural communities: roads, bridges, affordable energy, high-speed internet, schools, hospitals, and community supports like childcare.
Many rural regions of the province don’t have access to natural gas, a service most urban Ontarians take for granted. This translates into energy costs that are from 30 to 100% higher in rural, remote and northern communities – and if natural gas were available across the province, farmers, local businesses, and rural residents would save over $1 billion a year in energy costs.
It took a pandemic to bring deficiencies in high-speed internet coverage into the spotlight. High prices and unreliable service put everyone at a disadvantage when schools, offices, services and even a lot of our regular shopping were forced to move online. Fast, reliable broadband is a necessity in today’s world, and without it, rural Ontario can’t keep up with the rest of the province.
Two other key elements in attracting people to rural communities – and keeping them there – are schools and hospitals. Quality education and health care as part of community hubs provide reasons for families and businesses to look to rural Ontario as an affordable, ideal place to work, live and invest.
Creating opportunities for youth
A topic that we heard about a lot in our meetings with candidates was creating opportunities for youth so they can build lives and careers in their communities. We know there are employment opportunities in the agriculture sector and in rural Ontario – in fact, there is currently a shortage of 29,000 workers and growing – so more needs to be done to promote agricultural programs and careers to our young people.
That means prioritizing skills development and training throughout the value chain to help make it easier for employers to find, train and retain the workers they need, as well as improved policies and strategies to draw attention to the opportunities in the agri-food sector.
Labour is a key part of what we call supply chain resilience – the ability of the agri-food industry to keep Ontarians fed even during challenging circumstances. Without enough workers, that resilience becomes increasingly precarious and leaves us dependent on others to produce our food.
So, it’s critical that Ontario’s policies and regulations ensure stability and prosperity in all aspects of the agri-food supply chain, from field-to-fork.