Ontario’s 2023 budget investment into agriculture builds on promises made in the agri-food strategy announced in November 2022.
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“We’re still finding ways to keep moving the agri-food industry forward,” said Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Why it matters: The yearly budget sets fiscal goals for the government, including for agriculture spending and as a result it is carefully watched.
Whether it’s trade missions to access new and larger markets or investing in programs, modernization and addressing areas of concern, she said the government is committed to creating more certainty for the agri-food sector.
“You’re going to see our government continue to work with Ontario farmers on every level to encourage that stable and certain landscape,” she said. “In which farmers can continue to grow.
Under the 2023 budget, the Veterinary Incentive Program will bolster livestock veterinary care in underserviced areas. The three-year, $900,000 investment will provide 30 recent large animal veterinary graduates per year with student loan assistance to relocate and practice in underserviced areas to address critical skill and labour shortages.
The government’s message to potential veterinary students is that specializing in large animal medicine will benefit the agri-food sector and provide some loan relief.
“The Veterinarian Incentive Program is geared towards recognizing and encouraging people to pursue that pathway,” said Thompson.
Additionally, the collaborative Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program with the University of Guelph and Lakehead University will receive $14.7 million over two years beginning in the 2024-25 school year to improve veterinary care across Ontario.
The program will increase enrolment by 20 students per year, resulting in 80 new seats within the program over four years, increasing overall veterinarian graduate numbers.
“We haven’t had an expansion of our veterinary medicine program in Ontario for decades,” said Thompson.
The program is a two-plus-two initiative acknowledging the need to supply Northern and remote rural areas with veterinary care. By providing more opportunities for potential veterinary medicine students to study closer to their home communities at Lakehead University, it could see a spike in enrollment by Northern, Indigenous, and remote rural communities.
“We’re committed to initiatives that hopefully lead people to learn closer to homes, so they stay there (to practice) as well,” said Thompson.
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In the coming weeks, she said there would be focused efforts with the University of Guelph, Lakehead University, and other stakeholders to build effective parameters and direction for these cornerstone programs.
Peggy Brekveld, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) president and northern Ontario dairy farmer, said the OFA has long identified the critical shortage of veterinarians, particularly those in large animal medicine, as one of the most significant problems facing Ontario farmers.
“Limited veterinary capacity leaves people, animals, and ultimately our food system at risk,” said Brekveld. “This multi-faceted approach will help maintain healthy, safe and sustainable food production.”
The 2023 budget is building agri-food security from the ground up by investing $9.5 million over three years to improving soil data mapping, evaluations, monitoring and supporting key commitments under Ontario’s Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy.
The investment includes digitizing Ontario Agriculture Soil Information System’s (OASIS) current data and interpretive maps to help support on-farm decision-making and increase producers’ ability to innovate and use technology to improve long-term viability and remain competitive globally.
“This is our time to modernize and move forward to ensure all of you, as farmers have the best tools available,” said Thompson. “OASIS will help us manage and analyze soil data critical to support farmers to grow the quantity and food that we need domestically and also to pursue international markets.”
She explained that some areas of Ontario don’t have proper mapping, and others are utilizing data over 100 years old.
“As we modernize and embrace innovations and new technologies and continue to employ best practices where yields increase year-over-year,” she said. “They (farmers) need to have the data, the soil testing, and the availability of mapping to know exactly what they are dealing with.”
The updated soil mapping could translate into savings between $13 to $21 per acre per year.
“That adds up. That’s money in farmer’s pockets to enable them to continue to invest in their business,” she said.
John Stackhouse, RBC senior vice president and economist, tweeted that the province’s support for soil monitoring and mapping was a hidden gem within the budget.
“As RBC’s recent Fertile Ground study showed, soil is the new gold when it comes to capturing GHGs,” he tweeted. “Ontario can lead the Next Green Revolution with climate-smart ag.”
Drew Spoelstra, OFA vice-president and Hamilton area dairy and crop farmer, said soil health was always a key priority. With soil best management practices widely used, the industry can only benefit from additional support.
“We appreciate the provincial government’s foresight in supporting local food production and long-term agri-food supply chain stability with this investment into the future health and preservation of our soils,” said Spoelstra. “(Soil’s) truly one of our most valuable resources. (And) better tools like modernized soil maps will help us do an even better job at producing food as sustainably as possible.”
Thompson gave the nod to the experts within the Soil Action Group, who came forward with thoughtful, reasonable, and timely recommendations and anticipated the province’s investment to dovetail nicely with the federal soil health study results.