By Bill Groenheide, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
Issues around food security, rural infrastructure and responsible long-term land use planning were front and centre at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) annual conference this past week.
These are all issues that are challenges for Ontario’s rural communities – but they’re also issues that deeply concern and impact Ontario’s agriculture sector.
With the majority of Ontario’s 444 municipalities being either rural or bordering on rural communities, the annual gathering of municipal leaders and stakeholders is one that representatives from our organization, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), have participated in for many years.
We’ve always been there to advocate for issues that matter to farmers like farmland preservation, rural infrastructure and economic development that is distributed more evenly across all regions of the province.
This year, however, the issues that we care about and that matter to our members were also on the agenda for rural municipal leaders. A headline panel discussion focused on Feeding the Future of Ontario included topics like the critical importance of food security and planning for land uses with a long-term lens, and OFA’s president, Drew Spoelstra, was one of the panelists.
I farm in northern Ontario just outside of Thunder Bay, and in addition to being on the OFA board of directors, I’m also a municipal councillor in our area. So I’m very familiar with the issues facing rural communities like housing, infrastructure and health care – many of which are even more acute in northern Ontario.
For many municipalities, agriculture and food production is not formally represented in their policies and plans – which often means there can be unintended negative consequences for farm businesses when legislative or bylaw decisions are made.
A big reason why OFA attends this event every year is to help raise awareness of our sector by making connections and building relationships with decision makers to help bring issues that impact the farming community to the forefront.
The ROMA conference attracts not just municipal leaders but also provincial politicians and last week, OFA representatives had the chance to meet with different cabinet ministers as well as representatives from all major provincial political parties.
This was my first time attending the ROMA conference and it was gratifying to see the interest from fellow delegates in the agriculture industry and the important role we play in the provincial economy.
With nearly 50,000 farms across Ontario, the agri-food sector contributes $47 billion a year to the provincial economy, employs about 10% of Ontario’s workers and exports $20 billion in agri-food products annually.
To keep this sector profitable and productive, we need to ensure rural communities remain healthy, vibrant and viable. This can be done through:
Improving rural infrastructure and services. This means continued and expanded investments into rural roads and bridges, high speed internet and reliable cellular services, and affordable energy. It also means increased social infrastructure including local schools, healthcare and community hubs that will attract workers and their families to rural Ontario and help alleviate critical labour shortages.
Planning for housing affordability and responsible long-term land use. This includes developing and implementing policies that limit the loss of agricultural land, intensify residential development in Ontario’s existing urban footprint, and encourage smart growth and development that will meet the current and future needs of Ontarians and the provincial economy.
Boosting rural economic development. Foster economic development in all areas of Ontario by supporting more agri-tourism and local food offerings in our communities, which in turn will create jobs. This includes, for example, encouraging the broader public sector, such as long-term care facilities and educational institutions, to include more locally grown food products in their purchasing decisions.
Attending events like ROMA gives farmers the opportunity to share our messages, but it also gives us a better understanding of what elected officials and administrators are facing when making difficult decisions and enacting policy. By working collaboratively, we can help ensure Farms and Food Forever, which will benefit all Ontarians today and for future generations.
For more information, contact:
Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations
Ontario Federation of Agriculture
519-821-8883 ext. 218