This week’s guest commentary comes from Nathan Stevens of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne challenged the Ontario Agri-food Sector to generate 120,000 jobs and double the rate of growth in the industry. As a grassroots organization, the CFFO has spent some time consulting with its members on potential ways to respond to the challenge. The CFFO believes that there are several key initiatives that can help the sector grow successfully.
The first part of the challenge is to generate additional jobs. An honest assessment of primary agriculture points towards the need for the processing and further processing sectors to generate the vast majority of jobs. There may be areas of growth in some sectors such as greenhouse expansion, but agriculture is looking towards technology to improve efficiency, allowing fewer farmers to do more. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as ever since some clever fellow invented the wheel, there has been the need for fewer farmers to work the same land.
Where primary agriculture has the potential to lead the way is in productivity improvement. For the CFFO, this means first and foremost a more strategic approach to water management throughout the province. We believe that an integrated system of irrigation, drainage and storage can have economic, environmental and social benefits. Many Ontario farmers have already invested in drainage, but the adoption of the other two practices is more limited. The industry can improve both the amount it produces and the stability of its output with a more strategic approach to water use. However, there is little value in flooding our markets without a growing processing sector or new export opportunities abroad.
The CFFO also believes that government can play a key role in gathering market intelligence for our farmers and food processors. There are multiple avenues to be pursued in this area. With the growing number of free trade agreements that the federal government is pursuing, there is value in OMAF knowing what opportunities exist in these markets for our home industries. Furthermore, there is value in OMAF gathering information for new food companies, both foreign and domestic, to set up shop in Ontario.
The Premier has challenged the agri-food sector to generate new jobs and increase its productivity. Primary agriculture has the potential to produce more, but we need a strong and growing food processing sector and new markets for our food products to prevent price crashes arising from over-production. Meeting this challenge requires a strategy that encompasses the entire sector if it is going to succeed.