Ontario agriculture is feeling its oats these days but doesn’t believe it gets the respect it deserves, if the confident words spoken by Jack Wilkinson at the official opening of the 75th annual Ottawa Valley Farm Show are any indication.
Standing amid grain and haybales at the Show’s flagship Ottawa Valley Seed Growers Association booth, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture president drove home the message that agriculture and agri-food are the second biggest sector of the provincial economy. "We tend to forget how big agriculture has grown in Ontario."
Mere pieces of the Ontario agricultural sector outstrip the total farm production of smaller provinces, Wilkinson pointed out.
The Ottawa-Carleton area by itself possesses an agricultural and agri-food economy larger than either Prince Edward Island, NewBrunswick, or Nova Scotia, according to the OFA president.
He noted the burgeoning greenhouse industry, which has grown ten-fold over the past decade. Now valued at $310 million a year, production in Ontario’s greenhouses alone would rank as the six-largest province in terms of overall production.
Despite all the activity to food on their plates, many consumers feel little connection with the farms that make it possible. The Ottawa Valley Farm Show, he said, represents yet another opportunity "to talk to an urban audience about what we do on the farm."
On a larger scale, the sector has proven itself willing to throw its weight around to make its message clear to an apathetic urban audience. Last year around this time, there was the attempt to bend the ear of politicians by holding protest rallies at Parliament Hill and Lansdowne Park.
This year, OFA has defended its turf by effectively killing advertising spots that OPSEU had been running while union members are on strike. "When your hamburger is sitting on the barbeque, how do you know it’s safe?" he said, angrily quoting one of the offending advertisements. "We raised hell and threatened legal action."
The ads aren’t heard any more.
Another of the dropped spots dealt with monitoring pesticide usage, even though Ontario farms have reduced pesticide use by 50 percent in the past eight years, he said.
Expect the agricultural industry in Ontario to develop more brand names for various types of produce in the hope of earning a higher place in the consciousness of consumers and more clout with politicians. "Otherwise, the government will start thinking we’re irrelevant."
As important as softwood
Even now, Wilkinson told the Eastern Ontario Agri News, governments have shown little commitment to protecting agriculture from foreign subsidy wars. "It’s amazing, the spin-off effects we have, the big economic impact. Yet it’s depressing the politicians haven’t paid more attention."
Meanwhile, the federal government is consumed with trying to prevent job losses caused by American intervention in other sectors. "We hear about softwood lumber all the time."
Countervailing duties the U.S. government plans to levy on Canadian softwood lumber, which it claims is subsidized, are a threat to jobs on this side of the border. Then again, so are the huge subsidies the U.S. pays its farmers, driving down commodity prices.
for Canadian farmers whose own government is either unwilling or unable to spend what the Americans do.
Wilkinson reflected on the irony of the situation. "These people who talk about the ‘free enterprise’ United States ... forget that they have all sorts of commodities that they’re protecting.
"The U.S. is a very protectionist country."
As an example, he pointed to the American dairy sector, which supposedly operates under free market priciples compared to Canada’s supply management system. Yet, "it is almost impossible to ship milk into the U.S.," he asserted.
Supply management sticking around
For all the early fears that supply management would not survive globalization, it’s still here. Quota prices remain as strong as ever, revealing a continued confidence in supply management’s continued existence.
"There’s no reason supply management does not have a future," Wilkinson said.
The next round of World Trade Organization negotiations will establish the tariffs that Canada can charge to protect the supply managed sectors in eggs, poultry and dairy. A five-year agreement is expected to be ready for 2003.
The OFA president expects the European Union will be on Canada’s side during the negotiations. "They’re going to want to keep some degree of tariff protection."
Canadian consumers spend the lowest percentage of their disposable income on food than any other people on earth, he pointed out. Only the Americans have cheaper food.