Budget’s agriculture focus should not be overlooked

Canada could set bigger goals, but more budgets like the one tabled last week will be needed in the future, with greater focus on the realities of agriculture.

Several farm groups have congratulated the federal government on the agriculture content within the latest federal budget. For the most part, they are right to do so. A budget that includes agriculture as anything more than a footnote is rare.

Pundits say it’s an election budget, one the Liberal government hopes will warm the hearts of voters in middle and right-of-centre Canadians. But within its 725 pages, the government brought agriculture into the spotlight more than at any time in recent memory.

Agriculture takes up 20 percent of Canada’s Climate Plan section, offering $100 million in rebates to producers on the Prairies and in Ontario for natural gas and propane. Another $50 million is earmarked for grain dryer modification or replacement of grain dryers, $115 million for the Agriculture Clean Technology program and $185 million to the Agricultural Climate Solutions area.

Parts of agriculture budget programming will have little real effect in the West. Cover-cropping in large parts of Western Canada isn’t a practical solution due to routine shortages of water and a short growing season, and when it comes to nitrogen fertilizer management, few pounds ever go to waste. But if the government is willing to offer investments in precision agriculture already being employed by most farmers in the region, few will turn them down.

The same potential lack of impact applies to grazing strategies for livestock. Few acres of pasture go unmanaged on the Prairies because stocking rates are already low. With drought on the radar, they may run even lower.

Farmers in Western Canada have employed most of the techniques available to them that result in low carbon emissions because carbon is expensive and they can’t afford to waste it.

The minister of agriculture has acknowledged that, when it comes to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, technology is lacking. She hopes incentives might encourage development of more solutions.

But will future budgets continue to compensate producers for carbon taxes until those solutions appear?

This budget includes $30 million for preservation of wetlands and trees on farms. Another $10 million is intended to encourage lower diesel fuel consumption. It’s all aimed at incentives to reduce carbon emissions from farming activities.

But it’s the pledge of $1 billion for expansion of high-speed internet to rural and remote areas that really gives this budget the feel of a pre-election event. If all past budget and election pledges to provide better rural internet and cellular service had met that goal, we would have world-leading infrastructure by now. They didn’t and we don’t. It is a wait-and-see promise, an increasingly desperate wish that might one day come true.

The budget calls for improvements to temporary foreign worker programing and more investment in Farm Credit Canada and Export Development Canada. Those items are important to producers.

Development in the Canada Water Agency is portrayed as an agricultural benefit, as is investment in Saskatchewan’s new irrigation infrastructure program. That, too, takes up room in the nation’s largest-ever budget.

The government has promised greater investment in the Canada Food Inspection Agency, specifically for inspectors and safety surveillance, and cites the agriculture industry and producers as being the big beneficiaries from that investment as well.

While the further greening of Canadian agriculture is aspirational, this budget’s nod to farming shouldn’t be ignored. There will be opportunities lurking in the weeds.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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