WINCHESTER – MPP Ernie Hardeman’s one-year anniversary as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs was spent here, in the heartland of dairy country, discussing issues important to farmers and ag-related businesses, opening a new research facility and awarding the inaugural Excellence in Agriculture Award.
Not a bad way to spend an anniversary.
The tour-de-force by the 71-year-old veteran politician began Fri., June 28 with a roundtable discussion with council members and ag partners at the North Dundas township office. The talks focused on reducing red tape, a calling card of this provincial government, and mental health.
Labour shortages, training, changes to the Highway Traffic Act and concerns over bio-security were some of the items discussed.
In his address North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser called agriculture the “backbone to everything we do” and also made several poignant comments about the labour crisis and difficulties in succession planning in agriculture.
Fraser noted that his own employer, Parmalat, has echoed the concerns of other farm businesses having a difficult time hiring qualified workers.
“It’s surprising when so many people in the workforce need to come from overseas to support the operation,” he said.
Hardeman addressed the labour issue by saying that there is no easy fix.
“We have to encourage, collectively as a society, young people that agriculture is a good place to be. It’s getting more and more difficult, not that it’s getting worse to be here, but every other sector in the economy is going for the same people. We just don’t have enough people coming up in the workforce that want to get trained,” he said.
Fraser also made an emphatic plea to get the proper resources for people with mental health issues, which are currently non-existent, in place.
“It’s tough to find the resources whenever people are struggling. When people are struggling with these questions, that’s one more challenge they shouldn’t have to face. There should be more prominent, more easily accessible [resources] for us,” he said.
New research centre
Hardeman then ventured to Baker Road near Winchester, to officially open the $3-million University of Guelph crop research facility.
The site, surrounded by 150 acres of prime farmland planted with various crops, will house three full-time employees and three summer students, as well as hosting guest researchers and agricultural organizations like the Dundas Soil and Crop Improvement Association (DSCIA).
Holly Byker, one of three full time employees and a volunteer with DSCIA, pointed out that having the new station allows staff to be on-site and there is no transportation required to analyze the crop.
“All of our processing facilities are here now as well. We can take things literally off the field and start processing them rather than transporting them back to Kemptville,” she said.
The final stop for Hardeman was one that was most refreshing, both in the tale and the taste.
The location was Harmony View Farm near Ormond, owned by Evan Porteous, to recognize the makers of Vodkow with the inaugural Excellence in Agriculture Award.
Porteous, who is on the board of directors for the Dairy Distillery, which produces the beverage in Almonte, has been an invaluable resource for the group, as well as an early investor in the idea.
The alcohol is made from milk permeate, the liquid left behind after fat and proteins are removed. Normally it is a waste product, but Omid McDonald, founder and CEO of the Dairy Distillery and Neal McCarten, director of operations, worked with the University of Ottawa to perfect a unique fermentation process that turns the permeate into a smooth, almost sweet, alcohol.
“This is what agriculture is all about. Until this came along and they developed this product, everything they’re using from the agricultural industry was going to waste. Not only going to waste, but people had to pay to dispose of it and here we are turning it into a viable product that people are anxiously buying,” Hardeman said.
The fledgling company found an ideal local partner in Parmalat in Winchester, which had just added it’s ultra filtration system. Fast forward a few years and Vodkow has just recently been added to the shelves at the LCBO – a watershed moment for the growing company.
Hardeman said it was important to recognize those doing unique work in the industry as a way of fostering future development.
“We need to show appreciation and public recognition to those who are the innovators. The ministry of agriculture and rural affairs are not innovators. They are an organization to help the industry innovate,” he said.
McDonald, the entrepreneur who worked tirelessly to perfect the alcohol, agreed that tax breaks are nice, but only go so far. He cited the recent move by the Canadian government to change the vodka compositional standard to allow ingredients other than potatoes, such as honey, apple, or dairy.
“It’s a change that didn’t cost any money, but took some effort. It was put in place to foster some new businesses,” said McDonald. “When we get support like that from government it goes a long way. It doesn’t always have to be a financial contribution.”
Another move that would make a difference are changes to farmers market rules.
“What we would love to have, is to be able to sell an Ontario made product at farmers markets and Christmas markets. That would be huge for us,” said McDonald. “If it’s made in Ontario, we should be able to sell it at farmers’ markets.”
Versatility was a key message for Hardeman. Exporting raw products will always remain vital, but creating new products out of existing ones or wastes can be a game changer.
“Turning a four dollar bushel of corn into two bottles of Crown Royal and then exporting it to the world, that’s a great way to export a bushel of corn,” said Hardeman.