What are the major barriers to a healthy agricultural industry?

Agriculture was "newsworthy" in Canada in 2002. The drought in western Canada brought to the fore the uncertainty and difficulties associated with agriculture. In addition to natural constraints, the agricultural industry in Canada and more particularly in the Central Ontario Zone faces a number of manmade barriers.

A federal policy vacuum. Lack of a clear statement from the federal government on the importance of agriculture to the Canadian economy, and a commitment to developing a "level playing field" with respect to agriculture in other countries creates uncertainty for Canadian farmers. Time will tell whether this will be addressed through the ongoing federal/provincial initiative Agricultural Policy Framework, the purpose of which is to develop a comprehensive agricultural policy. In the meantime, subsidies for agriculture in other countries skew the marketplace, making foreign products cheaper than Canadian products. Free trade policies were designed to address these inequities but often seem ineffective.

Canadians enjoy some of the cheapest food in the world. The burden of this cheap food policy is often disproportionately borne by the producers. While the input costs to farming rise, prices fall. Because of subsidies in other countries, there is limited opportunity to increase the prices of agricultural products.

The ambiguities of the Provincial Policy Statement. Like the federal government, the province does not have a clearly articulated policy on agriculture, notwithstanding the Provincial Policy Statement. The PPS is implemented on a municipality-by-municipality basis, with little consideration of its implications on a broader regional basis. The PPS is often used as a tool to justify urban expansion, rather than as a tool for preservation of high-quality agricultural land and directing growth to other locations. The lack of federal and provincial commitment to the protection and enhancement of the agricultural industry (farmers and farms), compounded by the traditional farming "risks" of weather and markets, makes farming an uncertain business.

Lack of awareness of agriculture's importance. Many Canadians today do not understand where their food comes from. The fact that Canada is a world leader in agriculture, producing safe food using environmentally sound techniques, is not common knowledge. When faced with the choice of buying cheaper produce which may not have been subject to the same controls as Canadian produce, consumers often lack the knowledge required to make an informed choice.

Lack of clear policies on new technology. For agriculture to evolve, adaptation to new technology is essential. This requires a public debate over issues such as genetically modified food. New technology is being implemented globally, with far -reaching consequences. Canada must decide where it stands with respect to evolving technology and then support the agricultural community in providing accessible, accurate information upon which reasonable, healthy food choices can be based.

The aging of the farm population. The average age of farmers continues to increase. Many members of the next generation are not entering the industry. This has significant implications. Farming is a tremendously sophisticated and complicated industry and success is in large part related to knowledge that comes with experience. When a farm is handed on to the next generation, it is not just the land that is handed on. The knowledge gained from working with the previous generation is also handed on. There is no point in protecting the land base if there is no younger generation of skilled operators to continue farming.

Decline of agricultural infrastructure. As the agricultural infrastructure in the urban fringe continues to decline, the availability of services from farm equipment to veterinary services continues to decline making it more difficult and expensive to farm.

Competition for land. As competing and conflicting land uses push into the agricultural community, it is more difficult to farm using standard farm practices. More time is spent dealing with complaints about farm practices. Right to Farm legislation has helped this situation, but not eradicated the problems. Separation of uses would be more effective in addressing conflicts.

Financial barriers to new operations. The high cost of getting into farming is a major obstacle for new operators. Farm equipment, quota, property, and livestock are all expensive, and once a farm operator goes out of production, few can afford to get back in.

An inequitable tax system. The existing property tax system is uneven and inequitable when applied to agricultural land. Although there may be a preferred rate for agricultural land, the farmer still pays at the residential rate for his residence. The balance of the land is subject to property tax at a reduced rate. Because of this, the attitude of municipal politicians is often that agricultural land is a burden. However, studies confirm that, because of the minimal requirement for services generated by farmland, the taxes paid on agricultural land generate a positive tax return, while residential properties often generate a negative return.

An inequitable assessment system. Inequities due to the assessment base also have a negative impact on agricultural land in developing areas. With market-based assessment, the value assigned to an acre of land in the area surrounding Toronto is higher than an acre of land in the outer ring. Farmers in the GTA are subject to a greater tax burden than similar operators in the outer ring. This introduces an obvious disadvantage to the farmer in the GTA who must compete for the same market with farmers who benefit from a lower assessment base. Value-added activities allow a farmer to increase his income and can be the difference between a marginal income and a reasonable living. If the buildings associated with value added are taxed at an industrial rate, despite being for agricultural purposes, this can jeopardize the financial success of the operation.

Development practices. Developers take advantage of agricultural tax rates to reduce the cost of holding land pending development approval. Land that is close to developed areas is often purchased and then rented back to a farmer for the short term so it qualifies for the agricultural tax rate. The farmer is reluctant to make improvements to the land or spend money maintaining it for a short-term lease. The land deteriorates, adding justification to the argument that it is not viable. This process allows developers to hold land at a low cost with reduced taxes and realize a large profit when conversion to another use is approved.

Onerous legal requirements. The legislative controls on agriculture are significant and are increasing. Each new requirement imposed on a farmer creates a new demand for time, skills, and paperwork that adds to an already heavy load.

Reduced levels of support. Research funding and government agencies that traditionally assisted the farmers are being cut. Research facilities that were located in agricultur al areas are increasingly being centralized. Farming is essentially a small business that is becoming increasingly complex. Research and bureaucratic support that is readily available at the local level is essential to its success.