Ag Minister plans Drought Strategy

By Miriam King, QMI Agency

The U.S. midwest has been devastated by a super-heated summer, blasted by drought and record high temperatures. The result has been crop failures, and soaring prices.

Soy and corn are at record highs - up an estimated 60% - which is having an impact throughout the system. Livestock producers are already culling their herds, and consumers are being told to brace for higher prices at the grocery store.

In Ontario, the summer of 2012 has had a little of everything - from a late frost that damaged fruit tree blossoms, to drought, to flooding caused by severe storms and torrential rains.

For some, rain came in the nick of time, and crops are doing well. For others, it came too late.

Some Climatologists are warning that this could be the new "normal." Average temperatures are on the rise - which means higher evaporation rates, warm air that can hold more moisture, longer periods of drought, and more severe storms.

That's one reason why Ontario Minister of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, Ted McMeekin is working on a strategy to deal with drought - and asking the federal government for support.

He has asked Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to join the province in assessing support options for livestock producers who will be impacted by the loss of feed crops, through the AgriRecovery framework - and to speed up tax relief.

The federal government defines "Prescribed Drought Regions" every year, looking at rainfall, crop yields and losses, through the Income Tax Act. "It's normally a 45-day process, that starts in September," says Minister McMeekin. "Once you're in a Prescribed Drought Region you do things that you might not normally do," like livestock producers culling their breeding stock.

The program allows the producers to defer taxes on these revenues, and use the money "without penalty" to deal with the impact of drought.

OMAFRA asked the federal government to begin the assessment earlier in the year, rather than waiting until September - and the Feds quickly, McMeekin said. "That was the response I expected from a thoughtful and responsive federal government. We're working together on that."

The province is also offering additional financial support, by ensuring that the impact of drought won't have a negative impact on AgriStability coverage for farmers.

But in the long term, there is a need for even more co-operation and partnerships, McMeekin suggested, especially if drought becomes a fact of life for the American mid-west.

"Our climate up here is a little more moderate," he said; with preparation and innovation, Ontario farmers could be in a better position, down the road.

The bottom line is that "we are not a petroleum-based economy any more. We are a water-based economy," the Minister said. "There are a lot of alternatives to petroleum... There's no alternative to water. We take water for granted because Canada has about 23% of the world's fresh water."

Water management and water conservation are increasingly important, and there is a need to re-evaluate agricultural practices. "We need to look at drought resistant crops, we need to look at selective irrigation," he said. "We have a lot of expertise here in Canada which we're exporting to other countries," but now must apply here at home. "We need to be preparing ourselves.. It's our role as a government, and my role as a Minister, to facilitate this."

McMeekin spoke of new partnerships with the OFA (Ontario Federation of Agriculture), CFFO (Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario) and other farm groups, and the Universities of Guelph and McMaster. There will be new partnerships, "pooling those ideas, trying to be as proactive as we can... Pooling resources, research, technology, and getting the "gospel" of water management and water conservation out there - that's where we need to go."

According to the OMAFRA website, agriculture is a $4.7 Billion sector of the Ontario economy. Ontario has over 74,000 registered farmers.

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