Ontario Ag Week finds Minister all ears

Top marks to Lisa Thompson, minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, for going the extra mile to support Ontario Agriculture Week, which started Sunday.

Such occasions are usually marked some ceremonial measures – making declarations, rallying the troops, lifting their spirits, fluffing their feathers, good stuff like that.

Then there’s the requisite ribbon cutting, flag unfurling, and posing for photos, mask and all.

And for sure, some of that’s in play this time around. For example, in her declaration commemorating Ontario Agriculture Week, Thompson recognized farmers, chefs and “everyone in between” for their efforts.

“I thank you for your unwavering dedication to bringing high quality food to our kitchen tables,” she said. “Your resilience and commitment to doing the best you can to bring food to Ontarians is celebrated and appreciated.”

Then she took a step further. She noted that as part of the celebratory recognition, she’s holding what she calls “focused” discussions with sector representatives from across the agri-food industry.

“I want to hear about ways our government can work together to create opportunities that ensure rural Ontario and agriculture businesses are competitive at home and abroad,” she says, adding that she’ll use these opportunities to focus on important topics.

She named some. First came trade and export. And on a scale of one to 10, this is an 11.

Ontario is Canada’s most highly populated province. And indeed, its citizens need to be fed. But it’s also incredibly productive, with a climate, soil and workforce that produces more than 200 commodities, and more than it can consume. Ontario agriculture and food has a great reputation outside the province, and is ideally poised to help with economic recovery. What, besides re-opening the U.S. border, can the province do to create more opportunities…and once that happens, what can producers do to make sure they meet demand?

The next item mentioned is women in agriculture, which goes hand in hand with society’s drive towards diversity, equity and inclusion. Who knows when, if ever, agriculture will look proportionately like its stakeholders, consumers. But meanwhile, it needs to show it at least mirrors the same values as consumers. Values have traditionally been the likes of food safety and quality. Now they include equality for women, opportunities for underserved populations, fair treatment of international workers, and on and on. This is one of the sector’s biggest challenges. Some groups are facing it head on, while others are searching for the way to go. 

Innovation is another key area, and in this regard, Thompson can pat her ministry on the back, along with the University of Guelph and producer organizations, for their support of research. The long-standing agreement to have the ministry and industry sponsor research by world-class scientists at the university ensures the agri-food industry stays strong, can meet consumers’ needs and is ready to address new challenges and opportunities. Innovation is an area where the sector could really focus on diversity, equity and inclusivity. Many of the leading agri-food researchers in the province have already blazed trails in this regard.  

Jobs and training complete the minister’s list. Rural Ontario is clawing its way back from the pandemic, at the same time its population is shrinking. Despite all its virtues, it is not attracting and holding residents the way it must to thrive. Organizations such as the Rural Ontario Institute have done studies that show inadequacies in important matters such as transportation and housing, and can help identify areas of greatest need.

So good for you, minister, for seeking advice and vowing to work with the sector. We’re anxious to hear what you hear, and what the ministry will do to help it stay, as you say, one of the strongest agri-food sectors in the world.

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