The environment has been very high on the action priority list of the Ontario government over the past year. The number of Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) postings that dealt with proposed regulations impacting agriculture was overwhelming.
The work on the Great Lakes Protection Act has been relatively calm this past year. The Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund continued to provide funding for local projects to help protect and restore the Great Lakes. As yet, I am unclear as to the goal date to which the Lakes are to be restored. The water focus has been on phosphorus reduction in Lake Erie. The target is to reduce phosphorus loading by 40 per cent by 2025.
This is a fairly lofty goal for a number of reasons. Number one, for me, is the fact that phosphorus is challenging to measure and there are three different types of phosphorus. Agriculture uses phosphorus and is part of the problem but, Ontario agriculture is working hard to improve on a relatively good track record when it comes to nutrient management.
The greenhouse sector has participated in the Nutrient Management Act for one year -- a positive first step for all of horticulture. Holland Marsh growers have been the first sector to participate in the program, Smart Water Assessments which focuses on minimizing water use in vegetable washing. This is coordinated by Farm and Food Care and financially supported by the province. It is hoped that this funding will continue and be expanded to other horticultural sectors.
Recently, the Ontario government has proposed a Cap and Trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This shift to a low-carbon, circular economy is a significant structural change in how Ontario does business and the impacts of this transition have not been assessed. The impact on farm businesses -- which have been unable to pass increased costs on to their buyers -- may drastically reduce our ability to compete here at home and in the global marketplace. Initial information is that fuel costs will increase 3.6 cents a litre as the program is introduced. We have also been told that there will be no offsets or credit given for normal farm practices that sequester carbon.
If the proposal is accepted, our hope to benefit from the environmental goods and services that we farmers provide to society, will go unrealized. The Cap and Trade program will be similar to what is currently operating in California and is being introduced in Quebec. The need to help agriculture transition to a low-carbon economy will be imperative if we wish to maintain our food security and the economic benefit we provide.
It has been recommended that agriculture receive a proportional share of the proceeds from the Cap and Trade program for transitional activities. The reason this point is of such importance is that most fruit and vegetable growers have been financially challenged by rapidly increasing input costs. Labour, food safety and electricity have seen the most significant cost increases over the last few years. Electricity rates have gone up exponentially and there appears to be no end in sight for further increases. I am unsure what can be done to provide some type of relief to a sector that is highly dependent on electricity. Something needs to be done if we want fruit and vegetable farming to remain viable. Perhaps, a lower agriculture rate?
The government has continued to state that plans to increase the availability of electricity and natural gas to rural Ontario continue to progress. Agriculture needs access, if we are to grow our farms, as challenged by our premier.
Recently I attended a session hosted by the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) which is updating its valuation process for farmland and farm buildings. This is a normal practice for property values to be updated every three to five years and is to be completed early in 2016. The market analysis is 95 per cent complete for the 222,870 farm properties in the province and only uses farm sales to bona fide farmers. Due to problems with low farm sales in some regions, to allow for reasonable comparison, the geographic regions are being reduced from 220 currently to 170 in 2016. MPAC is also proposing that this extensive updating of property values move to a frequency of every six to eight years.
A new building cost manual for structures is also being developed. The Douglas Cost Manual has been used by Ontario insurance companies for a number of years and will be the basis for MPAC's new manual. The impact that this will have for some fruit and vegetable farmers could be significant. The good news is that there is still time for input on the changes to the property and structure values and feedback to MPAC is encouraged. A detailed MPAC assessment methodology guide for agricultural property is also being developed.
On December 7, 2015 the province released the report: Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe: 2015-2041. A positive in the report is the inclusion of farmland preservation and support for agricultural investments and our industry's viability.
Brian Gilroy is OFVGA chair, property section.
KEYWORDS: Brian Gilroy, Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, Great Lakes Protection Act