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Flurry of investment supports ag future

With the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here and winter knocking on the door, some Canadians are again wondering about our food supply’s resilience, given how unexpected demands overwhelmed parts of the value chain when the first wave hit.

Most agriculture and food experts say not to worry. All things considered, Canada’s food system, from farm to fork, kept up with demand the first time around. Affordability rather than availability is more of a concern, given how many people are out of work.

So given this scenario, you might expect support for longer-term agri-food investments to fall off, as all eyes focus on our current dilemma.

But as recent examples show, that’s not the case. Governments and institutions alike across the country understand the future of food hinges on investing in food production at all levels, starting at the farm.

For example, Conestoga College has started accepting applications for its new 16-week Agricultural Equipment Operator Pilot program, which kicks off in January. It’s funded by the federal and provincial governments, with a student program fee of $500.

“With the current pressure for agricultural workers in Ontario, there is a high demand for skilled equipment operators to support this industry,” says the college. That’s for sure. And until now, Ontario students had to go to higher education institutions out of province for this kind of training.

The Conestoga program includes experience in agricultural equipment repair, powered equipment maintenance, agricultural techniques as well as agricultural equipment operation. In addition, student get exposure in welding, safety, computer applications and academic upgrading.

On Twitter, the program got two thumbs up from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s capacity development coordinator Janine Lunn, a University of Guelph alumna, who called it “a great option for students interested in agriculture, and especially for those who appreciate hands-in learning.”

And speaking of the University of Guelph, further southwest at the institution’s Ridgetown Campus, officials gathered last week to announce the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs was investing $6.5 million into a 12,000-square-foot crop research facility. It’s intended to modernize crop research on campus and provide students with a “cutting-edge space” to conduct research and learn from industry experts.

Ernie Hardeman, the province’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs said investments in agri-food research infrastructure contribute greatly to the sustainability, protection and viability of the Ontario food supply.

And in Alberta, despite being hit so hard by an economic downturn, the province is still coming through with support for the agri-food sector.

At Olds College, the province and the federal government committed $1 million to the institution’s Smart Agriculture Applied Research program. It’s focussed on building and supporting what the college calls “a broad-based agriculture innovation ecosystem that connects researchers, technology companies, producers, manufacturers, retailers and learners to accelerate the development and adoption of technology and practice and enhance the economic impact of Canada’s agriculture sector.”

The minister of agriculture and forestry, Devon Dreeshen, said agriculture will lead economic recovery in Alberta… which seems odd, given the ministry is also cutting an estimated 250 jobs. Later, he continued that support at the University of Alberta, with $3.7 million in support of several government research programs to the institution, focussed on increased capacity for additional scientists and technicians n the university’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

And finally, in Manitoba, Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Community College received $1 million from the Sunrise Credit Union to support and expand its agricultural training opportunities. The funding will be put towards its plans to build a $10-million Prairie Innovation Centre, which will provide space for more than 800 students to engage in hands-on training in agriculture, environment, and related technology programs.

These are encouraging signs for agriculture, which thrives on research and development investment – and for Canadian consumers, who can maybe breathe a little easier when they consider the long-term prospects of their food supply.

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