by SUSAN MANN
Hillsburgh-area fruit and vegetable farmer Jeff Wilson wanted to use a new government program to help fund stainless steel packing tables, plastic tote bins and other food safety equipment upgrades but now he can’t this year because applications are no longer being accepted.
The program he wants use is the Food Safety and Traceability Initiative, which is funded jointly by the federal and provincial governments as part of Growing Forward. The total money available for the five-year program is $25.5 million.
The provincial agriculture ministry stopped accepting applications by July 17 – less than four months into the program. That has left Wilson miffed and his plans to replace wooden packing tables with stainless steel and 150 wooden tote bins with plastic ones in limbo. “It’s not only that they (the government) dropped the ball,” he says. “They dropped it and kicked it over the fence.”
Other farmers planned to use the program to pay for food safety audits required by major retailers but now they’ll have to pay the $900 to $1,200 fee per audit themselves, says Adrian Huisman, general manager of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers’ Marketing Board. Agriculture ministry spokesman Brent Ross says the $3.9 million in funding available for 2009/10 has already been committed. The funds are allocated annually and distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. “Once the annual funds are fully committed we can no longer accept applications for cost-share funding for that year.”
More than 800 applications were received. “The program has proven to be very popular as producers and processors respond to market demands for enhanced food safety and traceability,” Ross says.
The program reimburses successful applicants 75 per cent of their eligible expenses up to a $20,000 maximum to: implement a written food safety program; implement a working traceability system; assist in buying and installing equipment that improves food safety or traceability; or train staff to increase the adoption of food safety and traceability.
Farmer representatives are questioning the government’s move to stop accepting applications. “What kind of signal does it send to growers when they just pull the plug on the program without consultation with their stakeholders and especially when both levels of government cite food safety and traceability as a high priority?” Huisman wrote in his Fruit Forum column on the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) website.
OFVGA president Brenda Lammens described the situation as a “mess” and “it’s unacceptable.”
Farm leaders are concerned farmers who are almost ready to begin a food safety program will lose momentum while waiting for next year’s funding. But on the positive side “it is good there will be money set aside for those who come in late,” says Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Bette Jean Crews.
What this situation shows is this is a good program and people are really applying for it, she adds.
“There’s a real need and there’s not enough money there.” Huisman and others suggest OMAFRA consider adding more money to the pot, moving money from later years forward to the first year of the program or continue accepting applications so growers can go ahead with their projects even if they have to wait for funds until after April 1, 2010. Lammens says OFVGA sent the minister a letter at the end of July asking here to consider these suggestions. In response, Ross says the ministry is currently reviewing options for the program. BF