Farmers Forum editor Patrick Meagher and Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal spoke by phone March 2 about the Ontario budget. Here is the interview.
For busy people who just want a snapshot of the budget, can you briefly offer what would be of most interest to farmers?
One of the things that is key is changes in the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund. As we move forward, there will be $200 million available under our formula system for those communities with 100,000 and under and that really reaches to small rural communities, particularly in Eastern Ontario. Infrastructure tends to be older in Eastern Ontario. Much of it was put in place after the Second World War into the 1950s, particularly bridges, and we’ve really targeted the next stage of the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund to look at those key things. Good bridges and good roads are the equivalent to having a subway here in Toronto.
Anything that farmers should be concerned about in the budget?
I don’t believe so. I think by and large this is a very proactive budget for the agriculture sector in Ontario. Don McCabe (Ontario Federation of Agriculture president) provided three top asks to me as minister. One was to invest in rural infrastructure. Two, to continue to support farm business success and three, to take action on climate change. I think we’ve been able to respond to those top three asks.
OMAFRA gets a budget cut of $27 million, from $943 million down to $916 million. Is that of concern?
One of the ways I look at it, I gauge results as opposed to dollars spent. In my particular case, because I have a municipal background, I always look at budgets from a zero-base budgeting principle. Every year, you go through the budget. You evaluate programs. What kind of results are you getting from those programs and that’s the way that this budget for OMAFRA for fiscal 2016-2017 was structured.
When was the last time that OMAFRA got a budget cut?
Over the 13 years that we have had the privilege of being the government of Ontario, OMAFRA’s budget has consistently been in the $900-million mark. There have been some variations between $900-million and $1-billion.
But when you look at others, I remember when 32 ag offices were closed in Ontario in the 1990s. This is a very responsible budget that will continue to drive growth in a sector that’s generating $34.5 billion in GDP to Ontario.
The average Joe might say, ‘Okay, we have a provincial goal of 120,000 new jobs in the agri-food sector by 2020. There’s some neonicotinoid legislation and mandatory education to do. Farmers are being asked to do the heavy lifting here if there is a budget cut.’ How would you respond to that?
If we could just step back to what I said previously, I look at it from a zero-base budgeting perspective. I go through to make sure we are getting a good return for every dollar invested. But there are other portions of the budget that are really dealing with agriculture. For example, $30 million over the next three years for the growing global strategy. I led an agriculture trade mission to China last April and we’re using some of those dollars that are not in my budget. They are with Minister Duguid (minister of economic development, employment and infrastructure)and Minister Chan (minister of citizenship, immigration and international trade) to promote and make sure that Ontario products are in as many international markets as possible.
The other thing is that we have fundamentally overhauled the distribution of beverage alcohol in Ontario to provide a distribution channel for wine, cider and fruit wine.