by Steve Brackenridge, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
Throughout the last two years, farmers and farm businesses have worked hard to adapt to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That included ensuring Ontarians continued to have access to locally grown food and keeping farm workers and rural communities healthy and safe.
As an industry that contributes $47 billion a year to the provincial economy, agriculture is a key economic engine for Ontario. Agriculture will also be a key driver of the Province’s post-pandemic economic recovery – and as candidates of all parties roll out their election campaigns, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is busy making sure the issues that matter to farmers and their communities are front and centre.
We’ve already been meeting with candidates over the last few months leading up to the provincial campaign to help build awareness of food and farming and what we need to thrive and support economic growth for all Ontarians.
I’ve participated in a few of those meetings myself to share our provincial election priorities and provide more information about how supporting farms and rural communities will provide benefit to the entire Province.
Investing in rural infrastructure
We believe the key to producing prosperity for Ontario is ensuring that economic development opportunities are spread more evenly across the Province than they are now. The pandemic has shown clearly how inconsistent infrastructure and services can unfairly disadvantage the non-urban regions of our province. Now, more than ever, all levels of government need to engage with the agricultural community to capitalize on the economic opportunities that the farming and food sector could additionally provide for the economy and its citizens.
Ontario’s rural economy relies on properly constructed and maintained roads, bridges, and drainage to support the growth and transportation of goods and services. Simply put, when we can’t get trucks on the road, local food doesn’t make it to Ontario stores.
Rural Ontarians pay anywhere from 30 to 100 percent more for energy than people in urban areas because many parts of the Province still don’t have access to natural gas. If natural gas was available across Ontario, farmers, local businesses, and rural residents could save more than $1 billion in annual energy costs – money that could instead be used to create jobs and grow businesses.
Fast, reliable and affordable internet has become an indispensable necessity of life in our modern world. Pandemic-related restrictions that sent everything from school to social activities online certainly highlighted that need – yet also illustrated how this piece of critical infrastructure is still not yet available to everyone in Ontario, putting rural Ontario at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of the Province.
That’s why we’re urging a newly elected government to make long-term investments in rural roads and bridges, reliable broadband internet, and affordable access to natural gas.
But it’s not just about physical infrastructure. To attract and keep families in rural communities, our social infrastructure needs support as well. This means schools, healthcare, recreation, businesses, community hubs and programs, and mental health and wellness resources that can meet the unique needs of rural Ontario and the agri-food sector.
Supporting responsible land use planning
As a farmer, I believe strongly in the need for preserving farmland and protecting high quality agricultural land that is vital to our food production through responsible land-use planning – and we’ve been hearing that this is an issue that matters to many candidates too.
In Ontario, we grow and raise more than 200 hundred commodities, from grains, fruits and vegetables to milk, meat and eggs. Farmland is vital to our ability to grow food for Ontario, Canada and the world – after all, they’re not making any more of it, so it’s essential that we carefully look after this valuable resource that we have.
Through responsible land-use practices, we know that farmland preservation can go hand-in-hand with addressing the Province’s housing needs. The solution is two-fold: intensification of the residential development in our existing urban footprint to create complete and liveable communities, along with the distribution of economic development province-wide.
New investments in rural communities and distribution of economic development beyond just the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area will grow existing businesses, attract new ones and make those areas appealing for new residents to raise their families and build their lives.
When you support local farmers, you are supporting the jobs and employment opportunities the agri-food sector creates, as well as the economic growth and prosperity it contributes to the Province.