N.B. election season a good time to discuss agriculture issues

by Christian Michaud

Like all of the Earth’s seasons, elections roll around in their turn, bringing political weather that is becoming increasingly fickle. So it makes sense to be prepared to the best of our ability for a future that is even more unpredictable.   
There is little doubt that agriculture is the sunrise industry of the Maritimes. All signs point to an array of developing opportunities that will strengthen farming as a formidable pillar of the regional economy. In New Brunswick, farm cash receipts grew 11 percent between 2012 and 2016. Agriculture and food manufacturing exports, not including seafood, increased by almost $200 million in the same four years. The food manufacturing sector contributed $714.3 million to the provincial gross domestic product. Agricultural employment in 2016 was 5,200, the highest since 2010, with another 7,800 people working in food manufacturing.
Yet less than 0.5 percent of the provincial budget is currently allocated to agricultural services and investments. Obviously, addressing the industry’s development constraints would open the door to growth opportunities as yet only imagined. 
The growth and changing nature of agriculture can be helped or hindered by government policies. To take advantage of the opportunities ahead, we must ensure that our policy-makers are aware that it’s critical to progress with the times, and that they commit to positive steps that will smooth the path for farmers of all shapes and sizes. With a provincial election tentatively scheduled for Sept. 24, the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick is making some key calls to action for the incoming provincial government, whatever its political configuration. 
First, action must be taken on agricultural land protection. Already, we feel pressure from external buyers who see inexpensive farmland as an investment opportunity, which may take even more land out of production. The New Brunswick government introduced a new agriculture land policy in January 2017 after more than 20 years of pressure by the agriculture sector. But no further progress has been made on its implementation since. If we want to preserve the quality of rural life that defines us, we must protect the land that provides it from being overwhelmed by non-agricultural development. Also, the Topsoil Preservation Act must be changed to provide enforcement control of topsoil stripping for commercial purposes.  
We also have concerns about the federal and provincial governments’ responses to climate change. On that front, uncertainties loom large. While agriculture currently benefits from certain fuel exemptions (that is if the federal government accepts our provincial government’s approach), we have concerns about the development of carbon pricing and offset protocols. Farmers seek reassurance that they will be able to benefit from their positive contributions to climate change and that they will not be unfairly treated in future negotiations and policy development. 
Transportation is also prominent in this election season. We need safe, well-maintained roads for the movement of products. We also need to address issues of interprovincial harmonization of weight limits and registration fees that place us at a financial disadvantage.   
There are many other issues that require legislative attention, some that are universal, and others needing a more targeted response. A lack of high-speed internet and reliable cellphone service in some regions of the province must be addressed, especially with the introduction of so many electronic aspects of farming. Much education and training is also done online, but is not readily available across all rural areas.   
Farm families, like all families, may need services such as daycare, which are not accessible or affordable. Urban lawmakers can easily lose sight of the informal care networks that exist in rural communities. These should be nourished and sustained, particularly with the removal of restrictive regulations that limit resources to people who support each other in non-institutional settings. 
Farmers are a resilient breed and are growing stronger by the day. They’re the backbone of our rural economy. Elections provide an opportunity to make our voices heard. We do not wish to be strident or confrontational. We simply want recognition of our economic and social value, and a level playing field in government decision-making.

(Christian Michaud is president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick.)