Ontario budget’s ag spending plans fail to impress farmers

Ontario’s agriculture industry is the province’s top driver of the economy, so farm leaders were puzzled and disappointed when they saw little for their industry in the province’s budget released in April.

But Jeff Leal, the province’s minister of agriculture, said the province’s support for the sector re-mains firm.

One issue concerned numbers that on paper appeared to show total funding for the Ontario ministry of agriculture, which includes the base budget and one-time-only spending and infrastructure investments, dropping by 4.4 percent to $1.027 billion for 2017-18 from $1.074 billion spent in 2016-17.

“That’s going to hurt the agricultural field for sure,” said Clarence Nywening, president of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, one of three main general farm groups in the province.

Nywening said farm expenses are growing and provincial decisions, such as banning certain chemicals from use in fields, makes it harder for Ontario farmers to compete with farmers in other jurisdictions.

In an interview, Leal said that the province’s base budget for 2017-18, when one-time-only spending is excluded, will actually increase 3.5 percent to $948 million.

The previous year’s base budget had initially been set at $916 million, but Leal said spending edged up to cover emergency aid for drought relief, a $3 million initiative for the Ontario Corn Fed Beef marketing program and $19 million was added to help the greenhouse sector invest in new technology.

Nevertheless, Nywening said the only positive elements he saw for agriculture in the budget was that it was balanced and affirmed a plan to reduce household electricity costs by 25 percent.

Over the past several months, rural Ontario communities have protested escalating hydro rates.

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said he was pleased to see reference to the hydro cost reduction, as well as a re-announcement of a $100 million program to extend natural gas infrastructure into rural areas.

Overall, he said, the Liberal party plan on how it will spend money in the months ahead was disappointing.

The hydro cost reduction is a stopgap and the natural gas program will only have a limited impact, he said.

Emery Huszka, National Farmers Union, Ontario president, said he would have liked to see more initiatives that reflected the government’s stated respect for the province’s number one economic driver and employer. As well, he criticized the province’s carbon cap and trade program.

“Carbon taxing has a major im-pact on the agricultural community,” he said, and farmers can’t pass along additional carbon costs.

He said the NFU’s biggest concern about Ontario’s caps and trade system, which took effect in January, was its vulnerability to abuse by “polluting companies,” where the credits would become “just a cost of doing business to pay for the pollution.”

Under cap and trade, the province caps carbon emissions but then auctions off carbon credits that can be applied against the caps.

While announcing budget details, Finance Minister Charles Sousa emphasized that it was the first balanced budget in Ontario in four years.

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