By Tom Collins and Patrick Meagher
The Progressive Conservative Party winning the June Ontario election is easily the top farm-related news story of 2018, as many of PC promises would affect farmers, rural dwellers and families.
And while NAFTA deals and legal marijuana were also top of mind, away from politics, farmers were delighted in September with the thought of potential record-breaking corn and soybean yields. Too bad for most in Eastern Ontario that bin buster didn’t happen.
Here were the top agricultural-related news stories of 2018, ranked by the Farmers Forum news team.
1. New Ontario government
The Progressive Conservatives stomped the competition in the June election, taking 76 of 124 seats and 40.5 per cent of the vote. The election was a great victory for Premier Doug Ford, who became leader of his party fewer than 100 days before the election. Ford ran on a platform of more responsible spending, promising a line-by-line audit on spending to cut out inefficiencies. Some of his popular promises included killing the cap-and-trade tax, getting rid of the Hydro One CEO, repealing the sex-ed curriculum, capping the minimum wage increase to $14 an hour, cutting red tape and cancelling green energy projects.
The election was also a protest vote against the big-spending Liberal Party and its increasingly narrow focus on identity politics, green energy and environmentalism. Even its sex education program — encouraging elementary students to choose their gender — was offensive to many families. The Liberals won seven seats. You need eight to have official party status.
2. New NAFTA deal
After a year of negotiation, Canada agreed to a new NAFTA deal with the United States and Mexico at the end of September. The new deal, Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), was hailed by beef and crop farmers, but dairy farmers gave up 3.9 per cent market access to the Americans, as well as an end to Class 6 and 7 milk, two controversial milk classes that were created to counter cheap American imports of milk ingredients. The federal government has promised compensation for dairy farmers but hasn’t announced details. After giving up market access in three straight major trade deals, one frustrated farmer wondered when Canada’s quota system would stop being used as a bargaining chip. Others likened the trade deals to a death of 1,000 cuts.
3. Record-breaking yields forecast
A good rain in July and August led to dreams of record crops. Farmers were encouraged in their optimism as Great Lakes Grain, Maizex and Statistics Canada projected record corn and soybean yields. At harvest, many Eastern Ontario growers did not break records but still enjoyed big yields.
4. OSPCA challenge
The Ontario Landowners Association (OLA) finally had its day in court to challenge the provincial act that gives the OSPCA its powers. The OLA argued the Act violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it creates a private animal police force that is dependent on its donors. The OLA argued the OSPCA doesn’t have enough money to carry out animal welfare protection properly and that by accepting private donations, it puts itself in a conflict of interest. The group argued the OSPCA would feel pressured to investigate complaints that were in the public eye because it needed the private donations to survive. The decision came in 2019 (see page A2).
5. Minimum wage impact
The provincial Liberal government announced in 2017 that the minimum wage would increase from $11.60 to $14 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2018. To offset the extra labour costs, fruit, vegetable and greenhouse growers were forced to increase product prices, cut jobs, cut back on employee hours while working more hours themselves and dealt with extra stress. One Eastern Ontario farm couple spent the summer wondering if they should stop growing fruits and vegetables and switch to cash crops instead. In August alone, the provincial Labour Minister Laurie Scott said the province lost 80,000 jobs, most of them part-time. The minimum wage was supposed to increase again as of Jan. 1, 2019. But the Ford government put the kibosh on an increase to $15.
6. Marijuana becomes legal
It became legal to consume marijuana in Canada. And while some proponents hyped the idea that farmers would get rich producing pot, that never happened. There was the moral dilemma of telling kids not to do drugs while showing interest in growing marijuana. Then came the reality of the high cost to entry, a minimum $800,000 per acre to refit a greenhouse with necessary security features. Few Ontario greenhouse growers did start growing pot but teamed up with giant corporations that hold the Health Canada licence.
7. U.S.-China trade war
The shockwaves from the ramifications of the U.S.-China trade war were felt throughout Ontario, as soybean, hog and beef prices dropped drastically. The price for the old soybean crop at North Gower elevator was $13 at the end of May but fell to a year-low of $10.69 by Sept. 18. Chicago Board of Trade soybean prices dropped from US $10.415 on May 25 to US $8.18 on July 13. The livestock market fared no better. Hog prices were at $204.77 on June 22, but dropped to a year-low of $108.05 on Aug. 31. Prices recovered slightly but were hovering around $135 on Dec. 7. Hog farmers were managing by dipping into reserves, and through August, producers on average were losing $50 to $60 on every hog.
8. Green energy projects cancelled
The Ford government wasted no time cancelling 758 renewable energy contracts, the vast majority of which were solar power. Five wind projects were also cancelled, including the White Pines wind project at Prince Edward County, despite warnings from the company that it might take the province to court. The province did not cancel the Nation Rise Wind Farm, a 33-turbine project due to be up and running in March of 2020 in the North Stormont area. Eastern Ontario is currently home to four wind projects, totalling 127 turbines. Twenty-six turbines started turning on Amherst Island just west of Kingston last June, 86 are on the next island, Wolfe Island, five turbines are inland just west of Kingston and 10 are at Brinston, just southeast of Kemptville.
9. Ford cancels carbon tax
Not only did the Ford government cancel Ontario’s plans for a cap-and-trade tax, but it also vowed to fight Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if the federal Liberals try to impose a carbon tax on the province. “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not have the right to ram a carbon tax down the throats of Ontario families and job-creators,” Ford said. While no final report has been issued on what the Ontario cap-and-trade tax cost Ontarians, the provincial auditor general estimated in 2016 that the plan would cost homeowners $156 in 2017 in extra costs on natural gas and gasoline — and rising to $210 in 2019 — just to get minimal greenhouse gas reductions.
10. SOLD: Kemptville College campus
The conclusion of a four-year saga came to an end as North Grenville Township took over the beloved Kemptville College campus last spring. Farmers were upset in 2013 when the then-Liberal government announced plans to close the century-old campus that had become a rite of passage for many farm families. The province gave 633 acres of the original 837 acres and 34 of about 50 buildings to the township, which paid nothing for property. Instead, the township took on a $3.7-million forgivable provincial loan (as long as the municipality uses it to renew infrastructure and develop the campus) and got a $4-million loan to make upgrades. The campus, though owned by the municipality, will be run by an arms-length, not-for-profit entity.