Queen’s Park certainly looked different for this year’s Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) virtual lobby day. Many OFA directors fed animals the morning of our meetings, and a few even logged on from their farm shop. Wherever we joined from, our Zoom squares were hopping as we engaged with MPPs and their staff over two days. Meetings like the ones we participated in matter so much. While most farmers were in tractors or greenhouses or working with cattle, growing food for all Ontarians, your elected OFA Board of Directors were sharing how agriculture is managing the COVID-19 crisis and how we will continue to grow food for consumers beyond this pandemic.
Our board is dedicated to ensuring agriculture’s priorities and untapped economic potential is at the forefront of the minds of our government policymakers as they move forward on the road to recovery. The key messages brought forward over two days of virtual conversations included addressing continued rural infrastructure investments, farmland preservation, vaccinations for farmers and agri-food employees, mental health and skilled labour. Board members engaged with a compilation of 22 Ministers, MPPs and government representatives to discuss how we can work collaboratively to create a strong future for the agri-food sector.
Throughout the pandemic, the ability for other sectors to produce goods and services were hindered, with some production lines coming to a complete standstill. However, the agri-food sector remained strong, resilient and continued to feed Ontarians. OFA believes that sound investments in rural Ontario, such as broadband, natural gas and roads and bridges, will boost farming, agri-business and rural growth. In turn, our sector will pay back the investment in tenfold by stimulating the entire provincial economy.
Protecting farmland continues to be a main priority of our organization as we work to secure Farms and Food Forever. The harsh reality is that Ontario farmers cannot farm without farmland. OFA brought forward strategic work plans that guide responsible development and permits growth while protecting productive farmland. Agricultural lands are a finite and shrinking resource that we need to protect to ensure the family farm exists for generations to come, and to allow consumers the ability to fill their plates with high-quality food grown right here at home.
Another pressing issue brought to the virtual table was the continued struggle to find skilled labour. Data from the 2018 provincial agriculture employer survey conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) reported that 46% of Ontario farmers could not find enough workers, and 58% experienced shortages resulting in a loss of sales. COVID-19 has magnified and intensified these workforce challenges. If the issue isn’t addressed, it is predicted that over the next decade more than 2-in-5 agri-food sector jobs will remain vacant.
Ontario’s agri-food sector is a leading economic driver for the province, contributing $47.3 billion in GDP and employing more than 860,400 Ontarians. Building on the success of our sector depends on our access to a skilled workforce.
Agriculture and the production of food products is essential. The agri-food supply chain produces perishable items and the shutting down of processing plants and delays in the planting and harvesting of crops can have detrimental effects on the supply chain. During OFA’s lobby day, our board heavily emphasized the vital need for vaccines for the agricultural community. OFA also encouraged the government and public health units to ensure the process and portals for vaccine booking are simplified and seamless for farm workers to easily schedule appointments.
The pandemic has brought many changes to our everyday lives and the roller coaster of uncertainties has increased the level of pressure and stress in our families, businesses and on our farms. We recognize that many of our members are struggling and mental health continues to be top of mind for OFA’s advocacy and outreach efforts. We will continue to advocate for the expansion and accessibility of mental health programs and support for the agriculture industry and rural communities.
OFA is appreciative to all government policymakers and staff who took time out of their busy schedules to engage in conversations about strengthening Ontario’s agri-food sector. We appreciate your ongoing commitment to ensuring our food supply chain remains strong.
Finally, I would like to give a personal shoutout to you – our members – for sending amazing grassroots representatives to join the OFA board for these meetings. Our two guests, Ethan Wallace and Ashley Knapton, were professional and eloquent as they participated in engaging conversations. They each understood the needs of Ontario farmers, and spoke well on your behalf. The entire team was amazing. I am proud to be a part of our OFA team.