The stage can be set for an agricultural comeback

By MPP Toby Barrett
Something I enjoy in the winter, apart from feeding the wood stove, is attending farm meetings. In good times and bad, Ontario’s agricultural organizations – serving 50,000 farms and over 200 commodities – provide a valuable forum for all involved to advocate, and kick around ideas and information.

Like the rest of the world, farmers are technology consumers – something that has been documented over the 10,000 year history of agriculture.

Our 200-year tradition of farm meetings does not take away from the fact farmers embrace technology, including information technology – using the phone portion of the smart phone far less than using it to browse the web and tap into social media. Close to half the farms in Ontario rely on the internet for business.

In contrast to days gone by, intensive agriculture, precision farming, , biotech enhanced production, robotics, drones and automation obviously play a much larger role in today’s agri-business.

Agriculture and agri-food are now facing a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous challenge – the world’s population has exploded to seven billion. When my family started farming in Norfolk in 1796, it was one billion. Feeding the growing billions, requires a tremendous acceleration of knowledge and technology to produce more food, feed, fibre and fuel, while trying to use less input of energy, water, chemical and acreage. One thing technology can’t produce is more land.

An economic impact analysis for the Alliance of Ontario Food Processors pegged food and beverage as a $39-billion sector, with over 120,000 direct jobs and close to $7 billion in exports. As worldwide demand grows, so will the demand for farm labour, particularly skilled labour, agronomists, feed nutritionists . . .

Another study commissioned by the Ontario Agricultural College found a huge gap in the supply of agri-food graduates. They have three job openings for every OAC graduate.

For the sake of Ontario’s agri-food future, we need people who have a background in science, mechanics and computers as well as animal husbandry and crop production. Those involved know that farming and food business can be a tough way to make a living. Farming and finding a market is always difficult. We need to ensure confidence that farming still has the potential for a rewarding and profitable career.

Another study, by management consultants McKinsey and Company, anticipates by 2025, the world’s emerging economies will develop middle classes able to spend $30 trillion annually in global markets – markets for the kind of things we grow, feed, mine and manufacture. McKinsey and Company call this “the biggest growth opportunity in the history of capitalism”.

Kellogg’s, Bick’s and Heinz capitalized on Ontario’s potential and established successful industries. A variety of factors – globalization, high electricity prices and the cost of doing business here – drove them away. We need to create an environment to lure these types of industries back.

We can be the breadbasket for the globe, and ignite a comeback in our farm and rural areas. But to do this, we must get our economic and political fundamentals in order. Developing our agricultural and natural resources cannot be an afterthought. Indifference is a killer.

Production advances are many, but it still takes a seed to grow a plant and feed to raise livestock. Beyond that, we need policy for bold, confident action to capitalize on the projected boom in agriculture.