Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman answers questions about budget allocations for the agri-food sector

·3 min read

The Ontario Conservative government tabled its new $186 billion budget this week, which includes millions in new spending for Ontario’s farmers and agri-food industry. The budget comes as Southwestern Ontario’s farm belt gears up to begin another season and welcome thousands of offshore workers amid a rising third wave of COVID-19. The Free Press talked with Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman (PC-Oxford) about how the budget will support farmers, processors and workers.

What are the main items in the new budget that will support farmers and the agri-food industry?

“The most important one that’s going to help the general population and our farmers is the largest expansion in our history for broadband across Ontario … In our agriculture budget, of course, the $10 million for our workplace protection program to ensure everybody is safe on the farm and get us out of the pandemic.”

Ontario is gearing up to begin another farming season, and some sectors already are running. What are your biggest concerns for the industry heading into the 2021 growing season?

“The biggest concern of everybody is making sure that the people involved stay safe and healthy. A lot of our sector is very labour intensive and if we don’t have the people, we can’t put the crop in, and they can’t harvest it … We can help with funding but the sector itself has to work very hard to make sure all the rules are followed, and everybody is kept safe.”

Last year, COVID-19 ravaged Ontario’s farms, particularly migrant workers. Nearly 2,000 contracted the virus and three died. How will your government prevent a repeat of last year?

“We have to make sure that we do everything, looking at what happened last year and where the challenges were to see whether we can change that to make it work better than it did last year. I think we’ve come a long way. We have a strategic plan with 35 recommendations that was developed by the whole industry together. Our Ministry of Labour is doing a lot more inspections to make sure everybody is protected as much as we can.”

Your government investing $10 million to extend the Enhance Agri-Food Workplace Protection Program to improve farm safety during COVID-19. This program has been in place for many months already, yet there are currently 14 farms and six food processing facilities in Ontario with active COVID-19 outbreaks. What isn’t working?

“I don’t know. If I knew what wasn’t working, we would make sure that was changed. I think it’s very important to recognize that with farm workers, as with everybody else, we still have cases … We’re very fortunate that the outbreaks that we’re having right now are much, much smaller. Most of them are very low numbers, which is different from last year … We’re doing everything we can to prevent spreading once someone gets it, and I believe that’s working. Our numbers in total are much better, so far.”

The province is extending funding to support Ontario’s livestock processing capacity. How have processors been impacted by the pandemic?

“When the workers on the line have an outbreak, if it’s a large outbreak in fact, the plant has to shut down … when that happens, we have livestock in the chain that is ready for the market but there is no processing capacity … (Our investment) will help with that so (farmers) can keep animals fed and cared for while the plant is not running.”

What role do you see Ontario’s agriculture industry playing in the province’s economic recovery coming out of the pandemic?

“I see a bright future for agriculture … I don’t think there’s any sector of Ontario’s economy that has more potential for growth … Agriculture is going to be a big driver of our economic recovery.”

*Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

maxmartin@postmedia.com

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press