Ontario farmers get millions for COVID safety, robotics in budget: Hardeman

·3 min read

Ontario’s new budget offers millions of dollars to farmers to beef up pandemic safety protocols and invest in robotics to combat a labour shortage plaguing the industry, the agriculture minister says.

Over the next three years, $25.5 million will go to the Agri-food Prevention and Control Innovation Program, meant to help cut disruptions to farm businesses and protect workers from COVID-19.

Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman said the money, available to farmers through a cost-share program, will support innovation and investments in new technologies, such as robotics and mechanization.

“We will get more innovation and technology, and more robotics involved to make sure we become as competitive as we were before (the pandemic) or even more so . . . and still keep all the protections to keep our workers safe,” Hardeman said. “I think it’s a real positive.”

The pandemic wreaked havoc on agriculture this year, with outbreaks on farms and at processing plants halting production and disrupting crop yields.

More than 1,800 migrant workers have contracted COVID-19, and three have died.

Most recently, an outbreak at a Bayham farm has been linked to more than 30 cases. Another outbreak has also been declared at a Norfolk County farm, with three confirmed cases as of Thursday night, and more tests pending.

Hardeman said new safety protocols implemented this year have been largely successful, but in some instances, made production less efficient.

While his partners in the federal government aren’t looking at scrapping or minimizing the number of temporary foreign workers — Ontario relies on some 20,000 each year — augmenting that workforce with robotics would be a boon for the industry, Hardeman said.

“We want to get back to the efficiency we had before,” he said. “(The program) is to actually upgrade the facilities and technology . . . (and put) a robot or mechanization in.”

Hardeman said the labour shortage can’t be offset solely by hiring more local workers.

“The reason we are pushing or encouraging more efficiencies is not because we want to replace somebody we have, it’s because we haven’t got enough people to get the job done,” he said.

“We don’t want to become uncompetitive because we can’t get the work done. When a farmer loses half a crop . . . we have to look at ways to prevent that from happening.”

The fiscal plan, presented Thursday by Finance Minister Rod Phillips, projects a record $38.5-billion deficit amid the virus crisis.

Beyond the new agriculture innovation program, the record $187-billion budget includes other spending programs aimed at rural communities.

The budget provides $5 million for agricultural and horticulture societies, many of which have been devastated financially as COVID restrictions forced them to cancel their fall fairs.

“It’s rather strange that the agricultural societies, nobody seems to know they exist . . . but when they aren’t working, they are sorely missed because they are the centre of a community,” said Hardeman, who represents Oxford. “This will be a real help for them.”

The government has also committed $1 billion over the next six years to improve broadband internet access in remote and rural areas.

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press