Lobb, Thompson consult with farmers at Huron federation forum
BY LISA BOONSTOPPEL-POT
The asks and thanks kept Huron-Bruce MP Ben Lobb and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson alternating between smiles and serious nods at the Huron County Federation of Agriculture’s MP/MPP and Local Politician Forum on March 31 in Holmesville.
There were demands for more processing facilities in Ontario and wishes for more funds via the Risk Management Program. At the same time, commodity leaders were vocal in their thanks to Lobb and Thompson for their commitment to agriculture. Lobb was praised as his private member’s bill exempting Canadian farmers from the carbon tax on natural gas and propane used to dry crops and heat livestock had just passed.
There was a convivial atmosphere and this event, held annually, gave agricultural commodity leaders a chance to share their successes, concerns and needs with Lobb and Thompson. The two listened, then shared their own successes, concerns and needs. It’s evident there is a long-standing respect between all, but that didn’t stop some leaders from urging the pair to do something about the lack of processing capacity in Ontario.
“In the last couple of months and years, we have lost a lot of processing capacity to Quebec and the United States,” said Philip Van Raay, representing the Huron County Pork Producers. “We could keep that money in Ontario if we kept the pigs here.”
He explained that when pigs get shipped south for processing, it can cost farmers an additional $25 per animal with the carbon tax, in addition to worries about African Swine Fever (ASF) making its way to Canada from the U.S. and how hard it is on farmers to have pigs (which keep growing) crowding in barns and potentially being euthanized if there isn’t space to process them.
Beef farmers feel a similar pinch and want to see increased investment in programs that support meat processing capacity and infrastructure, along with the training, recruitment and retention of meat cutters and butchers.
Keith Todd, representing Ontario Sheep Farmers District 3, also chimed in saying in order to grow the sheep industry, they need more grocery space and a place to process lamb. “We need a federal processing plant,” he stressed, citing the closure of TruHarvest in Toronto, a farmer-owned packing plant that suspended operations in January.
Dairy farmers are also worried, said Huron County Dairy Producers spokesperson Lorenz Guntensperger. “We are as concerned about the lack of processing as the others. In the dairy sector, we are processing at 100 per cent capacity. When something goes down, we are in a pinch,” he said.
Guntensperger also spoke to the insensibility of a government concerned about the carbon footprint while milk is being shipped from one end of the province to the other to be processed. “We want to figure out options for processing on this side of Toronto, in Huron and Perth County,” he said. “It was great to see in the budget there is money being allocated for this issue because there is a great demand for protein and we have an abundance of milk, so hopefully this will spur more processing and get something figured out to keep the money in Ontario.”
Ethan Wallace, a dairy farmer and Ontario Federation of Agriculture board director, said processing is key to the agricultural industry and a requirement for strong communities. “Being able to process the commodities we produce in this county will add exponential dollars to our tax rolls and economy,” he said.
The lack of processing for meat and dairy has been vocalized for many years at this forum and Thompson was pleased to report that a $10 million efficiency program for processors has been created to modernize existing processing facilities. She has toured the Lactalis Canada dairy plant in Winchester and seen its plans for expansion. “I thought, wait, where is Southwestern Ontario in this plan?” said Thompson. However, she said the plan was “phenomenal” and that the company and local municipal council have worked in tandem to create this opportunity. “If we want to attract value-added processing, we need to think about where the opportunities are and how we can be shovel-ready to bring processors to farmers.”
Lobb said the need for more processing is more important than ever in order for Canada to be a sovereign nation. “Food is a sovereign issue,” he said. “We need energy sovereignty, food sovereignty and sovereignty within our borders. We do not have that. When we hear issues with abattoirs and processors and the fact that we do not make baby formula in this country, well that is unacceptable.” For many years, Canada has looked at off-shore production, but it’s time to look at home, he said.
A processing plant in central Ontario would add to the country’s gross domestic product, create jobs and protect Canada from “country of origin” labelling issues. Plus, it would be better for the environment, explained Lobb.
Lobb was praised for his success in having Bill-C-234 passed in the House of Commons in March. “To have a private member’s bill passed in direct opposition to the leadership of the day is almost unheard of,” said Wallace.
Lobb was thanked by many agricultural leaders, including Thompson. “Ben is humble, but I want to echo my thanks. We need smart policy that is not driven by ideology, because we need to be competitive,” said Thompson. “The biggest thing driving up food on the shelf right now is the carbon tax.”
Speaking for the Farm Finance committee, Rob Vandenhengel wished the carbon tax “would come off everything.” In particular, he mentioned the tax is an issue for commercial dryers and elevators, but the bill does not cover them. “It would be great if there was an amendment in the senate to include them.”
Lobb wasn’t alone in being appreciated and praised. Thompson was thanked for increasing money to the Risk Management Program (RMP) by $50 million for an annual allocation of $150 million though it isn’t enough, said some. “The support for RMP is greatly appreciated, but the cap does not let us respond to changing conditions,” said Harvey Hoggart, representing the Huron County Beef Producers.
Keith Black of the Huron branch of the Grain Farmers of Ontario said he was also thankful, but pointed out that if all grain farmers were in a claim situation, the amount would work out to only $500 a producer.
Thompson said the government is continuing work on how to “move RMP forward” and that premiums were frozen for two years, which was beneficial to farmers.
Food Summit and Celebrating Being Farmers
Thompson has just returned from the Ontario Food Summit to “create an informed food strategy” to shorten supply chains and fund more research and innovation. “Coming out of the pandemic, we came to realize there were a lot of vulnerabilities in the food chain,” she admitted. Thompson also said it was high time farmers start beating their own drum and be proud of their contributions. Coming back from a trade mission to Vietnam, she was thrilled to see the faces of Ontario producers on products in the country. “In Vietnam, it is about building relationships and trust and I think they do a better job telling our Ontario story than we do at home,” said Thompson. “We need to put our faces to work and amplify the pride we have as Ontario farmers. We are the breadbasket of Ontario and [have] so much to be proud of but we have work to do. Don’t be afraid to punch above your weight!”
Housing/Underused Housing Tax
Lobb said the underused housing tax “is the goose egg of 2023”. He knows it has irritated a lot of people and is glad the “government of the day” allowed for an extension. “I’ve had many calls from Huron-Bruce farmers on this issue and that accountants are charging $700 to $1,000 per document. I’m not here to criticize accountants, but it is unacceptable that the Canada Revenue Agency has done this.” Lobb said the original intent of the tax was to crack down on people who own five or six properties in places like Vancouver as a hedge or investment and let them sit empty. “Then it went down the country roads to farmers who have incorporated their businesses.”
Housing in general was discussed at the meeting, as some leaders expressed concern that it is eating up valuable farmland, while others wished housing was moving up instead of out. Thompson said new housing is vital to make space for people to fill the labour market. She praised Huron County Council for identifying settlement areas and their smart land use planning. She recognized that people are resistant to high condominiums and said people need to be educated about the need to grow up instead of out.
Lobb agreed. “Just in Goderich, a six-story condo was slated to be built at the former McGee car dealership and now it’s just dirt with a fence,” he said. “That would be a prime place to add small urban density and it’s not being done.”
Sandra Weber, the Director of Planning and Development for Huron County, said Huron County is definitely in agreement with these lines of thought and is reviewing planning documents to “allow higher density in urban settlement areas to protect prime agricultural land.” The county has also recognized the need for more farm family and farm labour housing.
Supporting Large Animal Vets
Hoggart said beef farmers are pleased with support from Thompson to increase funding to train and attract large animal veterinarians to remote, rural and Indigenous areas with a $5 million Veterinary Incentive Program. “We are getting critically low in terms of large-animal vets,” said Thompson. The funding will create a total of 80 new positions. Moreover, a review of the Veterinarian Act is being undertaken, which could respond to urging from veterinarian technicians to expand their practice, explained Thompson.
Lobb said the government should also be lessening restrictions for international veterinarians looking to set up practice in Ontario.
For years, Lobb has touted trade as an opportunity for Ontario farmers. He had a different tune at this meeting and admitted that trade deals signed with European countries have “not panned out well for everyone.” He felt it’s time “to hammer away” at getting fair trade deals.
Equality with the United States was an ask from the beef producers in terms of harmonizing livestock transportation rules and rules surrounding Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).
As some farm leaders argued for increased funding for various programs, Thompson reminded everyone that they also have a responsibility to develop value-added programs for their own products. “When we had surplus milk in the Dairy Goat Co-operative, we made cheese to sell at higher value and get our money back,” said Thompson. “This is the kind of conversation we need to bring to the table. As farmers, you are sophisticated and innovative… how can we drive value into that food chain?” she asked.
Animal Health Issues (BSE, AFS, AI)
Beef farmers are concerned about BSE; hog farmers about African Swine Fever (ASF) and chicken farmers about Avian Influenza (AI). Rightly so, as each disease can decimate herds/flocks and close borders. Brian Miller said avian influenza “is the issue of the day” for egg farmers and credited Huron County egg producers for their attention to biosecurity. He thanked Thompson for providing education on the issue to the industry.
Chicken Farmers of Ontario representative Ralph DeWeerd said they are encouraging small flock producers to register at familyfoodgrowers.ca to be included in any avian influenza response that does occur. “Biosecurity is an important part of the industry,” he said. Thompson said she admired how the feather industry comes together for emergency preparedness and has amazing leadership.
Van Raay said ASF has decimated hog production in many countries and said Ontario Pork is making plans for dry runs if it happens in Ontario. “Basically, if the U.S. coughs, we get the flu,” said Van Raay. He wants to see more defined rules whereby if one herd gets AI, the whole industry doesn’t have to suffer for it.
Several agricultural leaders commented on the difficulties finding labourers to work on farms. Lobb said there is a shortage everywhere in terms of labour. “We should be rolling out the red carpet for people who want to come here and provide value, pay taxes and pay into our communities,” said Lobb. “We should offer them an invite as Canadians and encourage them to become true Canadian citizens.”