PARIS, ONTARIO — Premier Kathleen Wynne donned a pair of Liberal red rubber boots Tuesday to visit a farm in one of the party’s few rural ridings, announcing support for the agriculture industry if they’re re-elected.
Wynne said she would introduce a $40-million-a-year fund over 10 years to support the food processing industry, which she said would help farmers buy machinery and equipment.
“We know that if we can partner with businesses and make sure that they have the support that they need and that they can grow and that they can market their products we know that we can grow the food processing and the agri-food industry generally in the province,” she said in Paris, Ont., in Liberal Dave Levac’s Brant riding.
The fund would come from a $2.5-billion pool of “jobs and prosperity” money aimed at providing government grants to businesses, which was part of the Liberal budget that failed to pass.
Many of the province’s rural ridings are held by Progressive Conservatives, with the Liberals holding two rural seats: Brant and Glengarry-Prescott-Russell. They also hold Peterborough and Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, which are a mix of urban and rural.
Wynne, however, suggested funding for the agriculture sector isn’t just about those seats.
“Yes, it’s in an election campaign and of course we are all campaigning, but whether my political career … is advanced by doing this or not, it is absolutely important to the future of this province that we have a strong agriculture and food industry,” she said.
Wynne admitted last year during her bid to become Liberal leader that the government’s popularity has suffered in rural Ontario, partly over industrial wind turbines.
Wynne’s own seat is a Toronto riding, but the premier also took the post of minister of agriculture and food. When asked about trying to shed a downtown Toronto image, Wynne married urban and rural with a personal anecdote about her grandmother who grew up on a farm and didn’t have money to go to university.
“If kids who grow up on farms want to go to university and then come back I want the government to be there for them to help them do that,” she said. “That’s not about being a rural kid, it’s not about being an urban kid. That’s about being a kid who wants to have opportunity. That’s what our government is about.”
Wynne also spoke about a Liberal “farms forever” program, which would be aimed at protecting agricultural land close to urban centres.
“We recognize that preserving farmland is a very important part of our responsibility and that’s what the farms forever program would be about,” she said.
“The other thing that I have heard as minister of agriculture and food is the need for support for young farmers who want to get into farming, either to be able to buy their family’s land or to be able to break into farming even if they haven’t been part of a farm family.”
Under the program, a landowner could request an easement to prevent non-agricultural development from taking place on the land even if it is sold.
Progressive Conservative Vic Fedeli, whose riding is in northern Ontario, waited outside the farm Wynne visited to criticize the Liberal platform, which he suggested is not costed out, though he didn’t offer specific criticisms of the agriculture fund.
“When you’re making an agricultural announcement that involves funding you’re basing it on funding you don’t have,” he said. Fedeli scoffed at the notion that the Tories are in danger of losing rural ridings.
“I don’t think the Liberals are making gains in rural Ontario whatsoever.”
The Progressive Conservatives later touted leader Tim Hudak’s job plan in a statement, saying it will “unleash the potential (of) Ontario’s rural communities by reducing the regulatory burden.”
Wynne was also taken to task by John Vanthof, the NDP candidate for Timiskaming-Cochrane.
“The so called agriculture minister has challenged the agriculture industry to create 120,000 jobs without giving them any of the tools to do so,” Vanthof said in an email.
“She hasn’t addressed the streamlining of any of the regulation burdens on farms, she hasn’t talked about how any of the funds will create jobs. Rural Ontario needs more than funds that arbitrarily pick winners and losers. Our job creation tax credit will partner up with the agri-food industry to create actual jobs.”
Ontario voters go to the polls June 12.