By Kate Russell
There was a full house in the Keady Community Centre on March 25 as the Bruce County and Grey County Federations of Agriculture hosted their 15th annual politicians’ day.
With a view to providing municipal, provincial and federal government representatives with constructive input from grassroots organizations, the day offered updates from the federations and commodity organizations in the area.
“What’s good for agriculture is good for rural communities,” said Ontario Federation of Agriculture Vice-President Drew Spoelstra in his opening remarks to the gathered politicians from all levels of government. “We’re trying to make rural Ontario a better place to live.”
Spoelstra said the OFA provides plenty of research, online resources and advocates on issues to the government. The organization recently made presentations to the federal government about global food security and Bill C234 carbon tax and to provincial ministries about building code changes, veterinary malpractice insurance, ecological offsetting and both Bill 39, which affects regional municipalities and Bill 23 – the More Homes Built Faster Act.
The keynote speaker for the day, Kevin Eby, is a professional planner who made headlines in late 2020 when he and six other members resigned from Ontario’s Greenbelt Council in response to concerns about the direction of environmental and conservation policy in the province. He spoke to concerns over Bill 23, which affects conservation authorities, wetlands and multiple Greenbelt areas.
He stressed the bill does not account for the idea there is already plenty of land to build on. Adding thousands of hectares to urban areas through the official plan amendment process and removing 3,000 hectares from the Greenbelt is just not necessary, he said.
“Shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem,” he said, noting the February 2022 Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force report recommended process improvements, changing regulations and incentivizing housing for developers. It did not suggest the sweeping changes to land use and conservation found in Bill 23. “Fifteen municipalities have over 1.5 million units already under consideration. There is no land issue driving this. The land that’s being brought in now has never been considered for development.”
Throughout the day, presentations were offered from various agricultural sectors. Derek Dupuis of the Bruce Grey chapter of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association gave a brief update about the grassroots non-profit, which promotes optimal farm production and stewardship practices.
The group’s primary concern is federal targets to reduce nitrogen emissions by 30 per cent. The association believes nitrogen inhibitors and the 4 R’s of fertilizer use: right rate, right time, right source and right placement will help lower emissions.
“Emission reduction will severely impact our production,” he said, adding crop farmers need to be sure they aren’t mandated to reduce their “actual use of nitrogen.” Farmers still need to fertilize and are seeking funding “for farmers to do their own research” so they are “able to reduce for optimal use.”
Dairy farmers are most in need of infrastructure investment, modernization of education programs and training facilities and less red tape, according to Mark Hamel, Bruce Grey Region 11 rep and Vice-Chair of the Board of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario.
“Our number one priority is investment,” said Hamel in his remarks at the event. He called on the province to build processing capacity to “incentivize and attract companies to build and expand here.” He also noted existing facilities need to be upgraded and modernized to bring more “sustainable practices and innovations” to the sector.
“We see ourselves as the solution,” he said about climate change initiatives and the idea of being net zero by 2050. Hamel said this will have to be phased in as some aspects of going green require investment, so compensation or grant support would be helpful. “We are not necessarily the problem.”
Beef farmers agree. Rod Lipsett of the Bruce Grey Beef Producers suggested the biggest priority in his sector is the environment. He noted the cattle industry has received negative attention in these days of climate concerns.
“We can’t help but feel we’ve been thrown under the bus. We’re a very small percentage of GHGs (Greenhouse Gases),” he said, noting the farmland cattle producers manage is one of the keys to fighting climate change. “We have a lot of land. We’re a carbon sink. We need more pasture protection and retention.”
Sheep producer Jay Lennox, Grey Bruce Director (District 2) with Ontario Sheep Farmers (OSF), said they still have a tough time profiting from herds.
“We’ve just come through one of the best years, yet we’re still having problems meeting our costs of production.” he said, suggesting the need to increase the cap on the Ontario Risk Management program by $100 million annually and the need for more processing capacity. He added municipal bylaws need to recognize livestock guardian dogs, which are “not pets, they are working animals” and regulations could be improved. “We’ll help with guidelines as predation is one of our greatest challenges.”
Fruit growers have multiple concerns from pest control to multiple agencies overseeing temporary migrant worker programs, according to Georgian Bay Fruit Growers representative Brian Gilroy.
“We depend on crop protection,” he said. Gilroy believes pest control is essential but needs to be safe, responsibly-used and science based and that any product harmful to the environment or the public should not be registered for use in Canada or on imported products. “I’m fearful of what’s happening in the world of crop protection at the federal level. We’re keen on lesser and better use, but we need the tools.”
He added food production is under huge pressure in everything from environmental concerns and climate mitigation regulations to labour needs and land loss.
“Farmers are not the bad actors when it comes to climate change, we seem to be an easy scapegoat for the rest of society,” he said. Gilroy also feels agricultural land is being overrun by the demand for housing and called for “specialty and prime agricultural land to be protected.”
On the labour front, Gilroy is a passionate advocate for migrant workers, who have travelled as seasonal employees to the area for decades. He said the housing issue for workers has become “very challenging” as he personally has been “harassed” by inspectors on international workers and random audits of his orchards, with inspectors visiting eight times in four months.
A panel discussion followed the presentations, which also included overviews of programs from Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) and the Drinking Water Source Protection group covering the Saugeen and Grey Sauble areas.
During the question period, the idea of a code of conduct for grocery stores was discussed at length, to put “retail chains on the spot” as consumers often place the blame for the cost of products on farmers when the fault is at the mark-up stage in stores. The maintenance of rural infrastructure and the impact of the increasing pressure for housing in rural areas was also highlighted.
“We’re upholding the right to farm,” said dairy farmer Hamel, who worries encroaching housing will affect farming everywhere. “With more housing coming to the country and new home lots, we have to recognize the impact on all agricultural sectors. We hope for good relationships with municipalities to support our farms.”
In comments during the day, it seemed the many politicians present were listening.
“Walk a mile in our shoes before you make policies that impact us,” suggested fruit grower Gilroy. “We are important to this province. What we do feeds this province. There is no more honourable profession than farming.” ◊