GUELPH -- Predicting another year of losses for hard-hit farmers, Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Andy Mitchell announced a new $1-billion federal farm aid package primarily aimed at grain, oilseed and beef producers on March 29.
Farm groups generally welcomed news of the "Farm Income Payment Program," due to begin flowing to their mailboxes this month.
But in another indicator of deteriorating relations between the McGuinty and Martin regimes, there was no applause from Ontario Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Steve Peters, who claims he was left out of the loop on the federal government's "unilateral" initiative.
The announcement, which included a call for the provinces to pump in $640-million of their own, has irked Peters. Reached by telephone in Toronto, the minister made it clear that the province's own $129-million pledge for the cash crop and tobacco sectors, announced the same day, had no connection to events involving his federal Liberal cousin.
"The timing was purely coincidental," Peters said, adding he only learned of the federal announcement the evening before
Mitchell was due in front of the cameras. Meanwhile, the provincial announcement "had been planned well in advance," he added.
"We were not privy to what the federal government was going to do ... it's an issue we'll be addressing with the federal minister," he noted, expressing his "disappointment" at the situation.
The federal government hopes the provinces will match its program on a 60-40 basis, which works out to about $640-million across Canada.
The federal dollars are not conditional on provincial participation, however, and that's probably a good thing for Ontario farmers, as Peters suggested the program was unveiled too late for the province to come up with more money this year. "The Ontario budget process has been ongoing for a number of months," he remarked. With a hint of exasperation, the minister added, "My budget request for the year is already in."
Peters also said the province is unable to calculate its potential share, under the federal program, because the total amount to be paid to Ontario farmers isn't known yet.
But the minister's apparent reluctance may not sit well with beef producers, who were not covered in the latest provincial announcement.
The Ontario Cattlemen's Association has already called on Ontario to "participate in the normal 60/40 manner" within their sector, on the heels of the federal announcement.
Of the $1-billion promised through the federal Farm Income Payment program, approximately $300-million has been earmarked for farmers of cattle and other ruminants across Canada. This includes $155 million in direct payments based on their inventory as of December 23, 2003.
In a media conference piped into The AgriNews office, Andy Mitchell touted the Farm Income Payment program as the first step in a plan to relieve the immediate financial pressures in agriculture, leading up to a promised "transformation" of the industry that will address the "root causes" of declining farm income.
"I don't think by itself that it's been solved, but it (the program) will go a long way," Mitchell said.
"This will likely be another year of negative returns," said the minister, who had also commented, "We need to immediately provide some stability to producers, across all sectors, and to move forward in a transforming way, which will take us beyond this frustrating cycle of crisis."
Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett, who spoke at Mitchell's Guelph press conference, expressed his pleasure with "how quickly this has all happened."
However, he warned officials that long-term fixes are still required in the industry. "If we don't start thinking outside of the box on some of these questions, we'll be back here again."
The Farm Income Payment Program includes a general payment of $841.5 million for all eligible Canadian producers -- with 55 percent earmarked for the grains and oilseeds sectors alone.
The program will use the same eligibility criteria employed in last year's Transitional Industry Support Program (TISP). Farmers who participated in TISP will automatically receive a payment under the Farm Income Payment Program, without having to apply.
Producers who were eligible for TISP but didn't apply can receive a payment under the Farm Income Payment Program. A guide and an application form for the Farm Income Payment Program are supposed to be available in the near future.
On the provincial front, Steve Peters' $129-million announcement includes $79-million to assist grain and oilseeds producers through the Market Revenue Program (MRP), $35-million to help tobacco growers exit that business, plus $15-million to encourage economic diversification in tobacco-dependent communities. The province also delivered an additional $88-million to MRP participants earlier in March.
Peters said his new money would be delivered to producers in "two to three weeks."
But will the sudden spurt of government cheques quell the pain in farm country?
Peter Tuinema, chair of the Ontario Wheat Board, was taking a wait-and-see attitude to the federal figures. "We haven't fleshed out how many dollars there will be for Ontario," said Tuinema, who also heads a joint committee of grain and oilseed groups that is exploring solutions to the farm-income problem.
Grain and oilseed producers have been satisfied with recent provincial announcements, he said, but are now calling for a revamped program to address projected shortfalls for crops planted in 2005.
"We need to put a program in place that producers can plan forward for," he said.
When asked if the recent announcements bring Ontario producers closer to subsidy parity with their counterparts in Quebec and the U.S., Tuinema was unequivocal. "Does it bring us close? No."
Carleton Place cash cropper John Vanderspank roughly estimated the recent programs would mean an additional $10,000 for his 800-acre farm -- compared to the more than $100,000 in subsidies he says he would get as a U.S. or Quebec-based producer.
"When you compare it to the $400-million for the Windsor Casino, it looks pretty small," added Vanderspank, who is vice president of the Lanark Landowners' Association.
"Just giving us a couple thousand here and there only prolongs the agony," he remarked.
Rather than giving "crumbs" to individual farmers, he suggested governments might better spend the money on countervail measures against American corn dumping, investments in additional slaughterhouse capacity, and further assistance for the Cornwall ethanol plant.
He said the Lanark Landowners Association and other affiliated groups planned on pushing ahead with an Ottawa rally on Parliament Hill, as well as other forms of protest, though a date hasn't been set. "I don't think we can shut er down. We've got to keep the rally on."
Meanwhile, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture will not participate in the rally, in light of the recent funding announcements.
At a March 30 meeting of beef producers in Lombardy, Ron Bonnett said the organizations were concerned about the "optics" of holding a rally after receiving a $1-billion handout.