HALIFAX, FRIDAY, APRIL 10, 2015
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Ms. Margaret Miller
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The Committee of the Whole on Supply will come to order.
The honourable Government House Leader.
HON. MICHEL SAMSON: Madam Chairman, would you please call the estimates of the Department of Agriculture, with the following resolution:
Resolution E1 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $61,536,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Agriculture, pursuant to the Estimate.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: I will now invite the Minister of Agriculture to make some opening comments and, if he wishes, to introduce his staff to the members of the committee.
The honourable Minister of Agriculture.
HON. KEITH COLWELL: Thank you, Madam Chairman. It's a pleasure to be here today and to represent the estimates of the Department of Agriculture for the Province of Nova Scotia. I'm very pleased to have with me my Deputy Minister, Kim MacNeil, on my right, and also Jennifer Thompson, Manager of Finance, on my left.
The Department of Agriculture has made significant progress over the last year, year and a half, and we're very pleased to be here today to discuss the progress we've made and to show Nova Scotians that, indeed, we can grow the economy in rural Nova Scotia and protect jobs in those areas. We take some very interesting steps forward to work with the different sectors of the industry and the industry is responding. It's a very exciting time to be in agriculture; it's a very exciting time to be in rural Nova Scotia with the agricultural industry really responding and, indeed, in the mode to make money and employ more people in Nova Scotia.
It's a difficult thing to do, to create an environment for business, in this case the agricultural business, to have the confidence to put the investments in place and to make the commitments they need personally and with their families to ensure that that progress is made in the province. We have to do this; we have to keep our young people in Nova Scotia; we have to have our farms making money and, indeed, growing their economy and with new products, new ideas, and I really want to commend them.
We've seen a lot of people move and take chances now that maybe they would not have taken a year or so ago. I believe that's because of the renewed confidence they have in the way we are approaching working with them and challenging them to move forward.
There are many examples we will discuss during these debates; I am not going to take long this morning. In our own department we have actually cut some costs, as required under the budget, and indeed we have a better group of people that we work with. We had great people to start with and it's a pleasure in the department, and I personally want to commend our staff in our department for the great work they are doing and the service they are providing, and continue to improve and work with the industries we have.
With those few comments, I will be interested in taking questions from the floor. Thank you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I think I anticipated that the minister might speak for almost an hour and enlighten us more on the department and its goals and plans. I know that the people of the province are very interested in agriculture as a whole; they are very interested in food. I think times are changing and local food is becoming much more important to our province.
I know that the people of this province want to know how the department plans going forward, see the percentage of food eaten in this province that is locally produced increase. I'm just wondering if the minister could enlighten us on the plans of the department to see more local food consumption in the province.
MR. COLWELL: I'd like to thank the member for that question. It's very important to our department and to the province, as he is well aware being a farmer himself. Through Select Nova Scotia, we've made significant progress in the last year. We have worked with Sobeys to the point that we have local produce in Sobeys stores now. Nova Scotia's provincial share of the total product that's bought in Atlantic Canada is $25 million annually, and that has grown substantially. The total value of Atlantic Canada's produce in Sobeys stores is $45 million, so we've got a large share of that product. We're working very closely with them and we've got a lot of interest now from other chains to do the same thing. It's an exciting time.
This year, several of our farmers sold their total produce to Sobeys - and all local products. We're also very happy and pleased with the fine work that the farmers' markets are doing. We have the highest number of farmers' markets that sell mostly all local produce in Canada. That's very important to us, and we continue to work and promote those industries as they move forward.
MR. LOHR: Madam Chairman, my question for the minister would be, what plans are in place to increase the number of farms operating in the province?
MR. COLWELL: We've actually done very well on that. We have more growth in the farming industry than anywhere else in Canada and we're very happy about that. We have some programs going forward, too, that assist start-up on farms and improving farm stability and also the ability for the farms to, again, make a profit. Because at the end of the day, when we talk about this - when I first met with the Federation of Agriculture, I said to them at the time, I'm going to challenge you to make a profit. I want you to make money. They came back afterwards and said, nobody has ever told us that before. But in reality, if you don't make money at any business, including farming, you can't survive, you can't grow, and you can't do all the things with your family that you need to do to make sure that you can continue that important work that's so important for Nova Scotia.
The more we do to replace imports into the Province of Nova Scotia, the stronger the economy becomes. With more farms and small farms starting, we're looking at other programs we can do. We're soon going to come forward with some changes and regulations around the products that are grown organically. That's going to be a change in the Province of Nova Scotia that will also help a lot of the small farms that want to get into organic products which, again, will grow the marketplace force. There's a large demand for organic products, but there are no regulations in this province regarding that.
We're doing several things at the same time to encourage the small farmers to get in place. We're doing a lot of stuff with the hops growth in the province. Finally, I had a meeting with the hop growers in the province. They're small businesses, small farms. They requested a meeting with the brewers in the province. We arranged that not too long ago and it was very successful. They saw exactly what they need to grow for the brewers in the province and the small emerging industry there as well. So we're starting to build partnerships, not only with the farmers, but also with their customers to supply products that they need and not just to supply products for the sake of supplying products.
MR. LOHR: I know that in the organic industry in the province, to be an organic producer, you need to apply to a certifying body. I would just like to follow up on that point. How do you see your department getting involved in that role between the certifying body and the producer?
MR. COLWELL: Well, the first thing we have to do is pass a regulation to ensure that there is organic farming in the province. There is indeed farming, but we don't have the regulation and the rules in place that we can help them get certified. Once the time comes, we plan to put in place a program that will financially help them to get that certification, because that certification is critical. We've had a lot of complaints about people going to farmers' markets and buying produce that isn't necessarily from their own farm that claims it's organic. This new regulation will prevent that happening, and we'll have some enforcement so that we'll be able to make sure that doesn't happen. When people actually go and buy a Nova Scotia product that's supposedly organically grown, it will be certified organic.
MR. LOHR: Just to recapitulate what you're saying - correct me if I'm wrong, but I actually know from personal experience that filling out those applications for organic certification are quite onerous. What you're saying is that you're going to have a program to assist people in filling out that application and you're planning to have a program. Because the other side of that equation is there are many people who would say, yes, this is organic, but in fact are not certified.
It may well be organic. Probably 99 per cent of the time, it essentially is, but lacking that certification they really maybe can't claim that. You're saying you plan to have an enforcement program with that organic status?
MR. COLWELL: Presently, the only programs that are in the province are federal programs. When we put the new regulation in place, it will be strictly for Nova Scotia. We will financially help them get certified - certification is critical - and then we can monitor to see if indeed they are growing organically as they say they are. We feel there's a large number of people who may not be truly organic. They may be partly, like you said, I think that's a very good point, but we want to make sure we have that in place so that we can help the small - typically, but not always, organic growers are smaller farmers than usual. But not always - we have some producers that are very large and organic and certified.
MR. LOHR: I guess I still would like to just ask another question about this organic issue. It would be my opinion that anybody who would go through the process of becoming certified would actually - I think the process, which I'm familiar with, has a fair bit of on-farm inspections. They are fairly rigorous. There would be a very low level of non-compliance or cheating there. I'm just wondering, has the minister had complaints about organic produce being called certified organic that is not actually legit?
MR. COLWELL: We've had some concerns expressed from the true organic farmers in the province that that may indeed be happening, but we have not investigated that because we don't have the regulations in place that we can back it up with.
MR. LOHR: I would like to go back to the number of farms in the province that are registered farms. What is the number of registered farms in the province this year as compared to last year, and how are we doing on that actual target of increasing the number of registered farms in the province?
MR. COLWELL: We will get that information for you.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Would the honourable minister like to provide that information later or would you like us to wait for a few minutes?
MR. COLWELL: We will supply the information later.
MR. LOHR: My understanding is that the target is to increase the number of registered farms in the province to 2,696 by the year 2020 and that the benchmark year was 2012, at which time there were 2,606 registered farms. The target for this year is lower than the benchmark. Can you confirm if that's correct?
MR. COLWELL: Again, we'll have to get that information for you.
MR. LOHR: I'd like to just ask a question about environmental stewardship. There are the environmental farm plans and it is my understanding that - well, actually, the question would be, can the minister tell me how many of the registered farms in the province have current environmental farm plans?
MR. COLWELL: There are approximately 1,300.
MR. LOHR: If we just do the math quickly on registered farms, if there were 2,600 or so registered farms and 1,300 have current environmental farm plans, that's about a 50 per cent rate. Can the minister tell us what the plans are to see that number increase and what the goals are for the coming year?
MR. COLWELL: We're working very closely with the Federation of Agriculture to improve the number of farms that have environmental farm plans. We have approximately 400 farms in addition to the 1,300 that are waiting to get approval at the present time.
MR. LOHR: I understand that the goal for 2014 was to have a 75 per cent compliance rate. Was that goal achieved this past year?
MR. COLWELL: We are moving towards that target. It's an ongoing process, and we also have to have the farms put their effort into it as well. If a farm decides they're not going to do it, we can't make them do it at this point.
MR. LOHR: Madam Chairman, the question I would like to ask, just to go to another subject, is the Liberal platform for land drainage. As the minister knows, the land drainage program has consistently been one of the most sought-after and popular programs that the department ever offered - and actually in some ways one of the most valuable, because year after year, land that has been tile-drained continues to outperform land that is not tile-drained. I'm just wondering if the minister can show me where the $600,000 commitment is in this current budget.
MR. COLWELL: That's a very important question because the tile drainage is very important to the industry. Last year, we spent about $345,000 on tile drainage altogether. We had budgeted $400,000; this year, we've budgeted another $600,000 for tile drainage, which was our commitment during the election campaign for this year coming.
MR. LOHR: I'm looking at the document provided here, and I'm just wondering if the minister could show me which line that number shows up on.
MR. COLWELL: It's on Page 3.3. It's under Programs and Risk Management and it's included in that number.
MR. LOHR: The actual - the forecasted actual, I guess - on that page is for $25.728 million, and the estimate for the coming year is $16.394 million. Can the minister explain to me how there's a drop of nearly $10 million, if $600,000 is added in?
MR. COLWELL: Actually, in the overall budget, we've increased the budget by over $1 million; part of that is for the drainage. The $25 million is a spike in 2014-15 because of AgriStability, the federal program that the mink industry accessed. We had to budget $10 million for the provincial share of that; that's why it's up to $25 million.
MR. LOHR: Could you provide some more information right now on how that AgriStability program worked with the mink and what the percentages of federal and provincial money were?
MR. COLWELL: It's a federal-provincial program that has been in place for some time. The way it works is it's an average of the income over a three-year period. If an industry drops below 70 per cent of the regular income over that time, they can put an application in, as an industry, to apply for AgriStability. It gives them an advance. The idea of that is to make sure that they don't go bankrupt in the downturn in the economy. It's shared 60 per cent by the federal government and 40 per cent by the provincial government. Once it's triggered, we have no choice; we have to participate in it.
MR. LOHR: I understand that that is a previous agreement, the AgriStability program. I understand that. Can the minister tell me exactly how much money went into the provincial portion of AgriStability for the mink industry?
MR. COLWELL: That's approximately $11 million.
MR. LOHR: The cost-shared money, or the money coming from the federal government to the province, has always been something that I can tell the minister that farmers have wondered about in that there has always been a feeling that maybe there is federal money available that the province isn't accessing. I'd just like to ask the minister, are there other opportunities besides this mink industry or the AgriInvest program for the province to access federal money on this 60/40 cost-share granted that are not being realized?
MR. COLWELL: Pretty well all of the programs we have under the 60/40 cost-share are being utilized. Some of them in the last year were slightly underutilized. That came about because people said they were going to do programs, and in the end, particular farms didn't do it. That's why there wasn't 100 per cent uptake on the program.
MR. LOHR: I'd like to get back to the other issue in a moment, Madam Chairman, but I want to ask about that uptake. I understand that in the past the provincial government would oversubscribe some of these programs, knowing that there would always be a certain number of farmers who did not actually get the work done.
I just want to ask the minister why that program was not slightly oversubscribed and then prorated, knowing that if 100 farmers fill out an application to do work, there is pretty well a known percentage that won't get the work done for one reason or another.
MR. COLWELL: The member is correct. Typically we would allow a slight amount for oversubscription, but we can't go beyond what our budget could handle if everybody did subscribe to it and we found that everybody decided one year - which has never happened, as far I know. We'd have to have the resources in place in our existing budget to cover those, in case we oversubscribed and everybody took advantage of it.
MR. LOHR: It's my understanding that this year, though, there was a significant underutilization of the funds simply because it was not oversubscribed as normal. Would that be correct?
MR. COLWELL: It was oversubscribed quite substantially this year - intentionally, to try to get it in place. But if my memory serves me rightly, I believe it was under the scientific research side of the Growing Forward 2 program that we were underspent, and I think we were underspent by - I'm just guessing at the number; we can get the exact number - about $240,000 in last year's budget. In the size of the budget, that's not a lot.
We also did change the criteria for more accountability. There was no accountability whatsoever in the past, in the previous program - whoever sent a fax in, they got the money. We have changed that now to make it accountable and make sure we get a return on our investment - our investment and the federal government's investment. That was a change we made last year, and we're going to enforce that even more this year.
MR. LOHR: I know that last summer there were a number of farmers who mentioned to me that the department was very late in issuing the approvals for some of the projects. Some of the reasons some of those projects would not have been done was simply because it was into July or August before the actual approval was received. Then in some cases it's really too late or it doesn't make sense to do that project that they had applied for.
I'm wondering if the minister can tell me why some of these approvals were so late in being issued last summer, well into July or August.
MR. COLWELL: There were a few reasons for that. One of the reasons was that we changed the criteria, so you had to show what the economic benefit for your business was. In the past there was none of that, of what economic benefit it would be for your community or the province. Some of the people had a little bit of difficulty formalizing that. We couldn't go to the first fax in gets the money - we had to stop that process. It was a horrible process with no accountability whatsoever, and the people that could get to the machine quickly enough always got the money with no questions asked. We're not ever going to accept that in the future.
Last year we had a little bit of a learning curve with our operation, and due to the new process, a lot of people sent incomplete applications in. They didn't give us all the information. We followed up with those ones, and they were a long time getting information back to us.
This year we've made some corrections. We're already out talking to the communities and letting them know what our programs are, what the criteria are. The criteria have not changed. They still have to prove that it's a good investment for their business. We want them to start thinking about their business again, toward making money. If they don't make money, they don't survive, they can't pay their loans to the province, and they can't do the things we need them to do and expand the industry.
We're starting to hold them more accountable. That's going to be the case as we move forward, and we're very excited about that. We have made some staff changes in that regard and the staff now have been instructed to give more service to the industry to really help them.
In the previous government, that you're connected with, there was a complete change in policy in the department around 2000. It really changed from a service industry to sort of hands-off, stay in your office, and don't talk to the industry so much. We're trying to change that with the resources we have now and really provide proper service to the industry that's accountable, and also the industry has to be accountable.
If somebody is going to put a fence up, then we want to know that that will help their business, or if they're going to do some drainage, like we've already talked about, that will help their business - it can put more acreage in production and do the things that are going to make a difference to the economy in Nova Scotia.
So we need that information now, and I've talked about this with the federal minister. They're very glad we're doing this, because they're very concerned about the past process that was in place where you just put an application in and said, I want $10,000 or $20,000, and basically they sent them a cheque. That was a horrible situation we inherited when we first came to office.
MR. LOHR: So I think what I hear you saying is that you believe that with the changes you've made, the approvals will come out in a more timely fashion this coming year?
MR. COLWELL: Yes. We have changed our processes in that regard to make it, again, all about accountability, but from our staff as well as from the industry. It's a partnership we have with them. We want to do everything we can to help the industry grow and prosper, and in return that makes us more products on the shelves that Nova Scotians can have that are grown locally, which is critically important to us and to our economy, but at the same time we've got to hold people accountable - our own staff and the industry itself.
The industry has really, really been supportive of this. Some people are a little bit concerned - well, we've got to fill out all this information - and they're a little bit upset about that. But the bottom line is that if they don't take the time and fill the information out and know what economic benefit that particular fund is going to give them and their farm - they probably shouldn't be applying for it. We want to see them grow, and if they don't know if it's going to make an economic benefit for their farm, they'd better sit down and have a very close look at all the things they're doing.
There are very few people that are talking like that. Over 90 per cent of the people we're talking about say, it's a great idea, it makes me think about how I'm going to spend money on my farm. They also have to make a major investment when the money is - the money is not all free, so they also have to make a major investment themselves. So should they do this fencing over here that can contain a field, and they can put some more beef cattle out or some sheep or whatever they're going to do? Or should I maybe invest in some other drainage that I need, or whatever the case may be that will help their farm? We want them to start thinking business and assessing this on a business basis, not just, well, it would be neat to do because I can get some money.
MR. LOHR: I'd like to just maybe change the subject a little bit to the harsh winter we've had. Honestly, two or three months ago - it seems like the whole situation is changing in ways that I personally couldn't have anticipated, in that maybe the winter has caused more damage to agriculture than we first realized. I would predict that as time goes forward there might be even more things that were unanticipated. For instance, obviously the greenhouse industry has had an enormous amount of damage from the snow collapsing their greenhouses, and it seems that possibly the maple sugar industry has seen some serious impacts. It's possible the beekeepers will have some serious impacts from it, too, and it's possible that the apple industry will see some impacts.
I'm just wondering what you can tell me about the department's tracking of this or what you know of it, and maybe how you think the department will respond to this situation.
MR. COLWELL: This is a very serious concern for us. This is probably the worst weather we've had in history, with ice that really loaded the greenhouses and other buildings very heavily. It was almost impossible to get off, even with the heating and all the work that the industry did. I give them credit for all the efforts they put in place to try to avert the problem.
Some of the structures that were supposed to withstand this kind of loading simply collapsed, so it's a whole process of more accountability from the suppliers of these things, which doesn't help our industry right now - and I'm talking mostly about the greenhouse industry.
It's a very serious situation. Normally they would now be in production, ready to put products out very shortly. That's not possible. They're looking at alternatives to maybe source some material from outside the province so that they can supply the customers for this year, which they do from time to time anyway.
We've been working with the Federation of Agriculture, as well as with the greenhouse producers, to see if there is any way we can help with this. At the present time there doesn't appear to be any program that can fit, although we're continuing to look at that to see if there is anything we can do in that regard.
I know some of them are going to have to rebuild their facilities, they're going to have to make some very serious business decisions, but this is a business. This is operating a business, and there is always risk in operating a business. I can tell you that the people we've dealt with in the industry are very dedicated. They came in and they made excellent presentations to us. They knew their business, they knew where they were, and they knew where they had to be. We're going to try to get them where they have to be, but it's going to be a long, hard battle.
When you talk about the maple industry - I've also been talking to them directly, and the federation has been working with them. One of the gentlemen I talked to, the president of the Maple Producers Association, indicated that in the woods he's working in, - and he's working in his woods - he's got seven feet of snow. It's more than they've ever seen in history. So it's really difficult. All of their taps are buried, so they have to get the taps and the lines above the snow. Otherwise they freeze up solid and they won't work. Some of the producers this year in the maple industry may not even tap their trees.
It's going to be a serious winter. We've got other issues around this heavy snowfall, and so many of these things have happened because of weather we simply can't control. It's the worst winter I can remember, and I'm probably one of the oldest people presently right here in the House. It's a situation that hopefully is a one-time thing. We have to get through this, but we have to learn from this as well.
If the greenhouse industry - and I've been talking about that - we can make engineering services available to them to ensure that the facilities can carry the kind of loads we've seen, or some precautionary things can be put in place - more than they've done in the past. What they've done in the past has worked very well, but with this kind of loading, they just weren't prepared for it. There's no way, and the structures weren't built to carry this kind of load.
MR. LOHR: The federal government - and this sort of goes back to, is there federal money lying on the table waiting to be accessed that could be accessed? I'm wondering if the minister would consider accessing the AgriRecovery program. I know that this program considers natural disasters, and obviously the high snow load would be a natural disaster. The first step in accessing this would be to have a request to the federal government by you that there be an assessment of the disaster. That would be the first step to initiate this process of AgriRecovery. I'm just wondering if the minister has considered that or will ask the federal government for an assessment of the winter that we've had and the ongoing effects of this.
MR. COLWELL: Actually, the honourable member is correct. This is the way it works. We've actually made that request, and we're now in the process of accumulating the information in conjunction with the Federation of Agriculture. We're hoping to be able to have that information quickly. We're in the process of writing to the federal minister for an extraordinary circumstance. We've already worked through EMO, because EMO is the lead agency on this. At the present time they can't find anything that would fit this requirement, but we're going to write to the federal Agriculture Minister and see if there is anything else we can access to help with this.
MR. LOHR: Madam Chairman, can the minister enlighten me as to which particular sectors he has requested this assessment for?
MR. COLWELL: The information we are looking for at this point is with the barn collapses and the greenhouses. We have not made a formal request. We have to get all that information back in first and that's underway now. We've engaged Perennia and we've had some workshops. We're in the process of doing that, but we've got to collect all this information. We had to go back to the federal government to get a questionnaire approved by them before we could send it out. That has been done, so we're well on the way of doing this, and it's going to take some time to do, just because of the structure of the program.
MR. LOHR: It's my understanding from reading the document that the request is put in and then a joint assessment is undertaken. Are you currently in the joint-assessment process for this with the federal government?
MR. COLWELL: What we're working on now is the preliminary questionnaire. We have to get all that information in first, on the greenhouses in particular. Until we get that questionnaire finished and see what the estimated damage is - and some of that is almost impossible to get back from the industry yet. There is so much snow that they can't really get in to assess what's going on, so we've got to wait until we hear back from the industry. We're actively working on that and putting everything in place that we possibly can.
MR. LOHR: I understand what the minister is saying in regard to the greenhouse industry. I wonder, would it not make sense to simply make a request to the federal government that the impact of the severe winter in Nova Scotia be assessed? Then at that point, from what I understand, a joint assessment would take place that would likely cover multiple - maybe also cover the various sectors like the maple sugar. Would that not make sense, that the joint assessment be immediately initiated?
MR. COLWELL: Actually, the only way this can proceed is we have to have a joint agreement between the greenhouse producers, the province, and the federal government. We're in the process of working on that agreement.
MR. LOHR: Okay, then maybe what I could ask the minister is to - it's not how I read the program, but it's very possible that I don't understand the program.
Maybe what I could do is ask the minister if I could have a briefing at a later date on how this program works and why I don't understand it, and an explanation of - I'm sure that the Federation of Agriculture and the industry are very interested in this issue too. Maybe they would like to have that too - exactly how this works with your federal counterparts.
Going back to that issue, the feeling in the province has always been for a long time that there are federal dollars available that we're not willing to cost share because we don't go through the process. Here we clearly have a vicious winter, and there is a process available, and from what I read, it's not based on your research. It's based on simply asking and having a joint assessment. I still think that the minister needs to simply engage the process as it's shown on the website.
MR. COLWELL: Actually, we are presently working under the protocol agreement that we have with the federal government and all provinces. We're working within those parameters right now. We can't deviate from that. If we do, we will not get any money. So what we're doing is by the book. It's an agreement that has been in place with the federal and provincial governments for a long time, and this is right across the whole country. We cannot deviate from that. If we do, there will be absolutely no help guaranteed.
MR. LOHR: So what I can understand, then, in this statement on the website, is that you have put in a request to the federal government for an assessment of disaster relief. Correct?
MR. COLWELL: The website is correct. Right now we're doing informal discussions that we have to do with the industry before we can activate the MOU that we have with the federal government and the other provinces to do this. It's a whole process, and we're on the road to doing that, but we have to informally assess these things.
We're working very co-operatively with the Federation of Agriculture. They're involved in this. We met with them this week, and they're well on the way for that. Again, it's hard to get the assessment finished because some of these places are still buried under snow and they don't know what can and can't be salvaged to get a true assessment of where they are.
MR. LOHR: I'm sorry to continue to drill down - has the request been made to Ottawa for the assessment?
MR. COLWELL: We're preparing to send the letter, but unfortunately we haven't finished the informal assessment. Until we do the informal assessment, we can't make the request. That's the problem. If the snow would melt this afternoon and we could get in and get more information back from the industry, we could have this request put in immediately. Our problem is still the weather.
MR. LOHR: I think that if we were to - and I realize I don't represent greenhouse growers, standing here, but if we were to have greenhouse growers here, I think they would say yes, there has been a disaster, make the request. I mean, that's clear, and I'm not sure if the maple sugar growers would say that, but I think they would say that, yes, it's a going disaster.
I think that as time goes forward, possibly other industries will say that too. I don't know for sure, and I hope not, actually. I hope that the weather turns and things start straightening themselves out and we still have a good maple sugar season. I hope that the beehives that were overwintered outdoors are fine - all of those things.
Hopefully the weather turns - as we know it will turn at some point - and there is less damage than expected, but some of that we won't know for some time to come, obviously. In some cases, we might not know the damage to an industry for months. I know we recently reported one of my neighbouring farmers, Josh Oulton, said that he thought they were going to be four weeks late getting on the land. I can tell you that in the Annapolis Valley, with some the sequential plantings some of the growers do, four weeks is a big chunk of the season to be missing.
Obviously there are issues here with this winter. It seems to me from what I read that simply requesting the assessment would be the right step and that a joint assessment would be taking place. Obviously that might take some time, but clearly we've had a very unusual winter, and I would encourage you to do so and hope that you would do so.
You mentioned some staff changes, so just to turn a page on that. You mentioned in a comment maybe about 10 minutes that you were making staff changes. I wonder if you could just elaborate on those staff changes you mentioned, minister.
MR. COLWELL: Still on the first part of your question, it's better to get this done right when we're applying for relief on these situations. If we don't do our assessments properly, if we don't get them in place properly because we still have no idea what our total value of the damage has been this year - until we assess that on a preliminary basis, we can't go to our counterparts in Ottawa and say that we need $5 million for this - and if the damage is for $20 million and then we're stuck at $5 million.
We've got to do this properly. There is a whole set of protocols we're following. We're following up and we're working very closely with the greenhouse producers, we're working closely with our staff, and we're engaging the federal government in the preliminary part of this, as we're supposed to be doing.
We have followed the protocol. If the snow would melt, we could have the answers tomorrow. We can't remove the snow, because if we do, we could do more damage. Therefore we're talking about something where we don't quantitatively know where we are, and until we know that we can't get further relief. And quite honestly, the greenhouse growers aren't going to be up growing this year immediately anyway. It's better to do it right so that next year they're up and ready to go on that part of it.
We just transferred staff from one place to another, and we put some program staff and we set new criteria around the performance of the staff in that area. They did a great job last year with the new program. We knew there would be some hiccups in it and some learning curves for our staff and also for the people that applied. As you earlier indicated, there were a number of people that were in July and other months of the year who were too late to do the work because they didn't understand what they needed. This year it should be a lot better. We're going out and explaining a lot better what the process change should be. I feel that we're going to be on very good ground this year and we're going to learn every year until we get this new thing in place.
What happened in the past was inexcusable. Under the previous government and your previous government, they would go in, and if I got the first guy on a fax machine and I could get it when it started and I was asking for $50,000, it would come into the office, you would pick up the fax and stamp it approved. Just like that, done, and you get the money. No explanation of what you're doing, no credibility or any accountability, nothing.
We changed that last year. It was a learning process in that, and I'm glad we did that. I sat in this room in Public Accounts and listened to these horror stories of no accountability - none. This is one of the first things I saw with the department. As soon as I found out this was happening, we moved to correct it. It's something we cannot tolerate. Here we are making more accountability in government - this is one of the things that we did. These are big programs with millions of dollars, and why should somebody that gets their fax in first get money that it's something that maybe they don't even need to do to make their operation correct?
So I'm going to ask why the previous governments didn't fix this before. It has been a serious problem, and again, we've been talking to the federal government about how they're so pleased that we're doing this in this way, to hold people and the industry accountable ourselves. The industry was just reacting to the slack accountability by past governments.
We're very, very disappointed with how it did work. We are fixing it, and by the end of this year we should have the system down to a fine science. We had to put a tracking system in place, we go and visit the farms now, which hadn't been done in the past, to see if the work was done. So this was a total disaster of federal-provincial money that was allowed to happen for years and years and years. If you want me to talk about that more, I gladly will, but maybe the Parties across the floor don't really want to hear what they did wrong in the past.
MR. LOHR: As a farmer, I will acknowledge that, yes, that was the system: first application in got approved. I will say, though, in that regard, that the applications were always in regard to the criteria set by the department. I think that would be federal and provincial, so the applications were in relationship to a goal that the department had. I do think that most of the money - I can't honestly say all of it was well - I don't think there was a whole lot of abuse in how the money was spent. I think the department's goals and criteria were reflected in the way those applications went in.
I don't mean to defend that system, and I do think that you're on the right track to change that system, so I will say that.
I just want to jump back to fire blight, to AgriRecovery, and that is in relationship to the storm we had last summer. We had post-tropical storm Arthur, and as the minister knows, it caused significant damage in the Annapolis Valley in the apple industry, where we had a very unusual event at that time of year. We had rain going horizontally through the fields spreading bacteria, fire blight, which is very difficult to control. There was quite a bit of damage done to the industry, which is literally ongoing - and actually, the way this winter is unfolding now is impacting that fire blight. Unfortunately, in that the farmers have not been able to get out, pruning is a very critical aspect of controlling the fire blight, and the farmers have been impeded in their pruning by five or six feet of snow. Normally those orchards would all be fully pruned right now, and because it has been so difficult to get in, they're not.
In any case, we know the damage from last year, the fire blight. I'm wondering if the minister has asked for an assessment with our federal counterparts for the apple industry in Nova Scotia on fire blight to engage the AgriRecovery program for the apple industry.
MR. COLWELL: In the first part of your comments regarding the programs, the goal of the previous governments was just to spend the money. So that's not a good goal to have. You want to get results and benefit from the money you spend and help grow the economy and help make businesses more successful, if you're going to have these federal-provincial programs.
With the fire blight issue, we're very concerned about post-tropical storm Arthur 2014. We received a request for a meeting from the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association to meet with me and to start to talk about AgriRecovery, and I simply called the president back - there is no need to do that, don't waste your time; let's start the process. We started the process immediately. That was February 13th.
So we're on this right away. We asked and I asked our staff to contact the federal government, which they did immediately, to assess the situation. That happened to review the economic impact, and then Perennia drafted a survey that was sent to Ottawa for review, which is all the process we have to do, and the program is meeting with the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers' Association. They met with them to discuss the survey. That will happen the week of April 13th, next week.
On April 8th Perennia hosted a Fruit Growers' Association event with a pruning workshop - we had 40 people attend that - and a presentation on fire blight management - 65 people attended that. A five-page fire blight management fact sheet is posted on Perennia's website.
We've followed all the protocol, and we've gone beyond that and really started to work with the industry to ensure that we minimize the damage from fire blight. You're correct, if you get it pruned early - that's going to cause us some grief and do some other corrective action - if it's done in the right order, it should minimize the damage to the orchards.
MR. LOHR: I didn't catch the first date that you mentioned, the day you - I think you said February. I'm not sure what date you said you put in the request with the federal government for the assessment. Could you just tell me that date?
MR. COLWELL: I received the request from the Fruit Growers' Association on February 13th. The same day I asked my staff to proceed with the processing.
MR. LOHR: If I understand, you received the request from the Fruit Growers' Association, you put the application in, and now the assessment program is underway. I guess, Mr. Minister, that was my question about the greenhouses. It seems relatively straightforward to trigger that: if the greenhouse industry were to put in a request for AgriRecovery with you, that would trigger that application to go into that request for assessment to go to Ottawa, just as the Fruit Growers' Association did. Would that be correct?
MR. COLWELL: It's correct and it's not correct, because the Fruit Growers' Association became aware of the fire blight problem last year. Not this year, last year. They did their own assessment, their own work, and it took them until around February 13th to finally say, okay, here is the problem we have, and here is the magnitude of the problem. It didn't happen overnight. This happened over many, many months before they came to us and made this request.
In comparison, where the greenhouse operators are concerned, that request should typically come in at the same timeline - probably this Fall, if you use the same timeline to assess the situation. We're hoping that they're going to get the request in to us and get the snow cleared so that we can do this a whole lot faster and get the request in a lot sooner.
MR. LOHR: I can appreciate that the greenhouse - out in the industry, we're all still struggling with snow right now. So I can appreciate the minister's comment that once the snow is cleared - and hopefully that will happen in another couple of weeks, but I would comment that there is a vast difference between fire blight in an orchard and a greenhouse being smashed.
You know what you're dealing with if the greenhouse is smashed. You know that right now, and there is no doubt about it. You pretty much know the cost, what it's going to take to fix it, and you pretty well know what your lost income is. You have all that. That's right now. Whereas fire blight and progression of diseases, because they're microscopic organisms and you really don't - the whole progression of a disease, there's a huge difference. So the apple industry taking more time to assess the progression of a bacterial disease only makes sense. We would even do that in a human population with the common cold or whatever disease.
I'm just wondering if the minister will recognize the difference between the two, and maybe would be willing to entertain a request from the greenhouse industry within a month or two.
MR. COLWELL: You're probably correct with your assessment on the greenhouse. Their greenhouse has gone down and they know what their income loss is. That's correct.
They don't know how many tables have been damaged. They don't know how the heating system has been damaged. They don't know how the irrigation system has been damaged. That's all buried. So we can get the total value of the thing - and the point here is that they're not going to be in operation again with those particular greenhouses for many, many months, maybe a year. If we underestimate what this thing is, if we can manage to get some compensation help for them - it's going to be interesting to see if we can find any kind of program that might fit that - we don't want to sell them short.
So if the damage is $25 million and we ask for $8 million, who is going to be the loser at the end of the day? The greenhouse growers. They're going to be the ones that lose, because once these programs are set in place, a fixed number of dollars come into it, and if you go over that fixed amount, the industry pays. So who's going to lose? Which greenhouse is not going to get the money they need to rebuild? That's not a decision I want to have to make.
MR. LOHR: But nevertheless it's quite clear that within a short time of the snow being cleared, the greenhouse industry will know its losses. I mean clearly, pretty much.
Anyway, thank you for that thread of talk. I just want to go back to staff changes for a minute now. I would like to ask you about the increase in senior staff. I think you're showing a significant increase in your senior staff, and I'm wondering if you would explain that increase.
Mr. Minister, I understand we have one minute left, so maybe I'll allow you to hold the answer to that question and I'll turn it over to my colleague.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Time has elapsed for the Official Opposition. We'll now move on to the New Democratic Party.
The honourable member for Queens-Shelburne.
HON. STERLING BELLIVEAU: First of all, if I appear as if I'm a fish out of water - pardon the pun here; I just want to recognize my previous career - I'm substituting today for our critic who holds this portfolio, the member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook- Salmon River.
Before I get into my questions here, I want to recognize that I sat by my former colleague, the member for Hants East, Mr. MacDonell, for four years. I want to recognize that knowledge, and I also want to recognize the knowledge and the expertise of the former speaker, the member for Kings North. I understand his background too. I had the privilege of sitting in close proximity to these two individuals.
So I have compiled a number of questions, Mr. Minister, and I look forward to addressing your portfolio in Agriculture.
The former speaker asked a series of questions, and I can assure you that I will be duplicating some of them. One of the ones I was really impressed by and I want to know more about was the effect that Hurricane Arthur had on the apple orchards. My understanding of this fire blight - and I tried to research this over the last several months, just for my own personal interest. The former critic raised a number of questions regarding that.
I sense that there is an industry struggling with this particular issue, minister, so I'd like to see more information, if you could update me on the effects that Hurricane Arthur had on the apple industry. We're almost a year later - if you could update us on that.
MR. COLWELL: We've been meeting with the Fruit Growers' Association regarding this problem created by the hurricane. The hurricane was very unusual and brought some new - I'd probably call it diseases, or whatever you want to call it - into Nova Scotia that typically hadn't been a real issue here.
The fire blight issue is one that will have more of a short-term effect, from what I understand. There was a presentation this winter where they brought an expert in from the U.S. who deals with fire blight all the time. They said that in our weather conditions, we should be able to contain the fire blight problem in a proper manner. They gave some examples of what you need to do with that. It included some applications of products that would help that situation - some pruning, like the previous member talked about. It's a disease we can control in Nova Scotia. It's a disease we can get under control, and it doesn't affect the fruit whatsoever. It only bothers the tree and reduces the productivity of the tree.
It's one of those things that will potentially reduce the profitability of some of the farms. That's why we've gone after AgriRecovery to look after that, because it could be out three or four years while that's in place. But at the same time, we have a very vibrant fruit-growing industry, especially in apples. They've done an exceptional job in conjunction with previous administrations, working with government, federal and provincial.
They've done an excellent job in turning their industry around from being in a situation where they were getting almost nothing for their apples. I believe, if my number is correct - I'm just going from memory here - they were getting about $75 for a box you would think of as deer apples, because most people understand what that size is in the industry, to almost $1,465 for the same bin of Honeycrisp apples.
The profitability of the industry has really gone up. They are in a situation now that even though they will have a loss, we figure that down the road they will still be quite profitable, we hope, because of the added value of the apple.
I've got a picture in my office that was given to me by an apple orchard owner in the U.S. who is very envious of the development of the Honeycrisp apple - and the Gala and some of the other ones that we have in the province - and how successful it has been. The picture shows a Honeycrisp apple for $3.49 in a big bin that would be about the size of three desks like we're standing behind here. Beside it there was another one for $2-and- something, if I remember it right, and behind it there were several other apples for $1.60 or $1.50 a pound.
This was in a market in Texas, of all places. The Honeycrisp apple that was $3.49 a pound was a Nova Scotia Honeycrisp apple. The one beside it, for less value, was grown in Washington State, organically grown - and ours aren't organically grown, typically. I give the credit for that to the industry. They learned how to store the apples, they learned how to harvest them properly, and they learned how to grow them properly.
This is an industry that is well-organized. It will be able to tackle this problem as another problem they have had to deal with over the years and become profitable, and will continue to be profitable. But they're going to have some setbacks because of this, and hopefully the storm, as the previous member had indicated, with all the snow on the ground, doesn't cause us any further problems. We're assessing that right now. It's underway, and we're doing everything we can to help them - not only with the recovery program, but also with the science around how we can cure this problem as quickly as possible.
This is a very valuable industry to the province, one that we have a lot of hope in. The people at all levels of this process are very, very professional. They're businesspeople. Typically people don't give farmers a fair shake, because you think of a guy running around all full of mud because he's been working all day and working on his machinery and everything. But these are pretty savvy businesspeople.
If you see a modern orchard today, it's more like an apple orchard - it looks like a vineyard. There are no big trees with the branches all hanging down. Those trees are very inefficient. Now they have trellis systems. The trees come straight up and the branches are very, very short - very few leaves on them, but full of apples. Production is a lot higher, and it's a lot easier to maintain and look after the trees.
On the older trees - and I would have to verify this with the industry - fire blight would be a much bigger problem, because you have so many more leaves, where it attacks the leaves. So they can selectively pick the leaves, they can do other things, and whatever treatments they need to do to correct this.
It's a problem for us. It's a problem we will overcome, and hopefully with the recovery program we'll get some of those trees replaced, if they need to replace them, and have the resources so they can do the things they need to do to make sure we recover as quickly as possible.
MR. BELLIVEAU: First off, I want to say that I want to understand, and I think the public wants to understand, the Honeycrisp apple. I'd like to know if that was a slick marketing campaign, because to me it has been very successful - and my personal preference is that I enjoy all apples. I'd like to know how that was accomplished, and I may add another part of the question in there.
Just in the last few months I have observed on one of the documentaries on television that, through science, the industry has developed an apple that does not turn brown when you cut it. I was intrigued by that. I know that I enjoy that first bite of an apple, but science has manipulated that - and I'm not suggesting that's negative or positive, but I want to understand that. So could you elaborate on those two questions, please?
MR. COLWELL: It's a very good question the member has brought forward. He is referring to those apples that are available in the market - some of those apples are genetically engineered.
We do not have genetically-engineered apples in this province. The industry is committed to not having them in the province. The apples and the production that were done - the research was done at the Kentville Research Station, by the federal and provincial governments, mostly the federal government, in conjunction with the industry.
This is a true Nova Scotia success story. They took an industry that was struggling, very difficult to make money, and they totally changed the technology they use through science. They adapted some different types of apple that have incredibly different flavour. They last really well, but they've got to be looked after very carefully. It was a long, hard learning experience for the industry, but it was the science and the dedication of the industry that made all this happen.
I can't commend the scientists who worked on this enough, and the people in the industry, the growers and also the wholesalers, are a huge part of this process. They had to make huge expenses in specially controlled rooms, correct temperatures to hold the apples so they stay fresh all year.
You notice, if you buy a Honeycrisp apple - if you can still find one now, because they sell out pretty quickly - they're the same quality as the first one you would have had off that tree. That's no accident. They're not genetically engineered. It's all about how they store the apple, how the apple is handled from the time they pick it until it comes to someone's table to enjoy. We're in a very enviable position of anyone in North America, having the best apple-producing area in North America, if not in the world. We have the people who have really recognized that, put their investments on the line, put their futures on the line, and come up with products that are really making a difference in the Nova Scotia economy.
As we see the apple industry grow in Nova Scotia, we're going to see our exports expand. If you have a Honeycrisp apple from Nova Scotia selling at a higher price than anywhere else in Texas - who really prefer to buy anything from the U.S. before they buy anyone else's - and you're getting a higher price for it, that really tells a story of where we are and where we're going. It's a very exciting time for the industry. Setbacks are normal in agriculture, things like the fire blight - it's a new risk.
I'll give you an example. One of the first files I inherited was a complex virus in strawberry plants. It was a huge problem, and it threatened to wipe out the whole strawberry business in Nova Scotia. This year, in one year, with the help of a program that we got through the federal government, which I appreciate very much, and with the way we jointly shared on a $2.3 million process, we managed to cure the problem and get the fields back in production two years ahead of schedule. This year, the strawberry producers have record sales and record quality. It shows you how easily some of these things can be turned around when the industry works with the government - both levels of government. Something that was a very serious problem for our economy and for the farming industry turned into a huge success, which will continue in the future.
As we look at these things, it's all a matter of risk and times of risk, and then the benefits you get from finding out what has happened to that product at that time, correcting those things and doing them properly, environmentally soundly, and doing the science and the research on them, and the proper ongoing testing - all the things that you have to do to ensure that when that product gets to someone's table, it's the best quality, the most environmentally-produced product you can get. That's what our industries in Nova Scotia are doing, especially in the farming industry.
I was born on a farm. I don't know how many generations, 15 or 20 generations, but I'm the first generation that never farmed. So I really don't know a lot about farming. I have been so impressed by the quality of people in our industry. They really set a standard. They get short growing seasons, but they overcome that. They get high-quality product produced and they're able to increase their products and their yield.
I'll give you an idea. There's a gentleman in the Valley who was approached by a company. He was producing one product and shipping it to the southern U.S. They were growing kale. Now, kale can't be grown in Nova Scotia, if you listen to everybody. It cannot be grown here, supposedly. Last year, he took a chance and applied some technology he was aware of to growing kale. He put 10 acres in just as a trial, which is a pretty good size. He produced four times as much kale as they could in Carolina, where they have been growing it for generations. They came up and looked at the production facility and the quality they were getting, because now he's shipping it to the southern U.S. - a product that they didn't buy outside their state. He sent it there four times, and they looked at the process and said that's nice, but our climate wouldn't allow us to grow it like that. So he's going to go into further production of a product that he's got totally sold before he starts.
There are exciting things happening in the farming industry in Nova Scotia, and people don't realize. The image of the farmer, again, as I said earlier - with his clothes full of mud because he works in the mud all day, sort of sauntering along and not doing too much. That same person may look the same, but it's not the same person that he used to be even 20 years ago. He has to know his science, he has to know how to run his business, he has to know about his equipment, and he has to know about the weather, all these things, and I can tell you, we'll put our farming industry up against anybody. (Applause)
We may be small in comparison with some other provinces, but the technology being developed in this province - and we don't give our people enough credit - is leading the world in some of these things. We don't talk about it enough. We're trying to take advantage of this, trying to grow our economy, because we have an industry that is excited about what they're doing, that knows what they are doing, and knows how to make money. We just have to give them the vehicle to do it and set them loose. We're very excited about this, and I'm very excited about working with the farming industry.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Thank you for that response, minister. Again, this winter - I'm not a climatologist, but I know that the effects of the severity of our winter didn't just last five or six weeks, especially February and moving into March. I've seen a few of these seasons myself, but I've never seen one where - it appears to me, from just my observation - the snow is heavier. It seemed like it was the combination of weather events, where there was snow and then there was a thaw and freezing, whatever that was doing in the climate and the atmosphere. But when it landed it seemed like it caused chaos. All I have to do is look out this window and observe some of the streets here, and I think you understand the point.
The greenhouses in the agriculture industry really took the brunt of the severity of this weather event. I've seen the news articles and I've heard some of the questions being raised here during Question Period, so I guess my question is, where is all that? You alluded to it in some of the other - my former colleagues here, the critic area, when he raised that question. I'd like to know where that program is trying to address the havoc that that has caused for the greenhouse industry in Nova Scotia.
MR. COLWELL: That's a very important question. As I described it to the previous member, we are taking the steps we have to take under the agreement we have with the federal government and all the provinces have across the country. We have to adhere to those criteria. The MOUs are in place and all that, and we're doing that very stringently.
The weather conditions you talk about, we're seeing more dramatically here, although the effect is all over the province. I can tell you what happened here - I know you don't live in Halifax. What happened was we had a snowstorm and a rainstorm, and everything froze to -25C; we had a snowstorm and a rainstorm, and it froze at -25C. In my driveway at home I still have eight inches of solid ice in the driveway. I had to get up on the roof on my garage and break the ice away because it was backing up underneath and leaking into the building. It was that bad. I have never seen anything like this in my whole life. I don't know - we'd have to go back in history with somebody to see what the weather conditions were like. It has been a really unusual winter.
As far as the growing conditions in Nova Scotia, we have ideal growing conditions. I'll give you some examples in the wine industry, which we're working with very closely at the present time. We will continue to work with them. They have some of the best growing conditions for grapes in the world today. We have better conditions than Bordeaux, France, which makes the finest champagne in the world.
One of our winemakers went to Champagne, France, and competed against the French and the European sparkling wines, the champagnes - we're not allowed to call them "champagnes" in Nova Scotia - and he won. What did they do? They said it couldn't happen, no one has ever beat us from outside the communities, right? So they put them in brown bags like you see - years ago, you'd see the guy on the park bench with his brown bag and having a drink. So they put them in brown bags, and lo and behold, he won again, so they had to give him the award.
It gives you the kind of science we're seeing, the kind of climate conditions we have and the availability of these things. We had one of our bigger wine operators here advertise for a master winemaker. Now, he estimated at that time that there might be 50 or 100 of these people in the world at the level he wanted them. He figured he would get two applicants - maybe two. He got 50 applicants, because people have recognized that this is one of the most ideal growing areas in the world today.
We're sitting on a gold mine here that we really are just starting to realize and starting to work, so it's exciting.
Getting to your greenhouse issue, this is serious for us. Some of the greenhouses will not be able to supply product to their customers this year. That has a short-term effect of affecting this year's income. They have to rebuild, and there are going to be costs with that.
It also runs the risk for them that they may not be able to hold their markets. If a customer gets used to buying some product outside of the province, they may not be able to hold their market. It's going to be two or three years before we can manage to get this totally under control. Before we jump to conclusions and get on this right away - which we are actually doing from the right perspective - and name a value that this might be worth, we have to look at the whole situation and see exactly where it is. It's going to take some time to do that, and most of it is going to depend on how quickly the greenhouse operators themselves can get back to us with very detailed and accurate information.
One of the operators we dealt with had a pumping system that has been there, that his grandfather put in place. It's under four feet of ice. He'll have no idea on this system until he gets the thing all thawed out, and it's going to take a long time for this ice to thaw away from there. It had never been submerged in water or ice before, probably in 30 or 40 years.
These are the issues we're dealing with, and the best part of it is that we're working very closely with the industry. The Federation of Agriculture has been great to deal with on these issues. They understand this because they're all farmers themselves and they understand how these things happen. They understand the programs that have to be put into place to do it. It's a really good combination of working with us, working with the federal government, working with the Federation of Agriculture, and working with the greenhouse producers of the province. We're all working together with one goal. We're also working with Perennia; they're working very closely with them as well.
As we put all the resources behind us, we're hopeful that we can find a solution for them and by next year have them back up in business again and help them get their markets back in place so they can be very profitable.
MR. BELLIVEAU: I think I need to expand on this point before we move on to another topic. I was interested in the minister's comments. You said you want to get all the cost analysis regarding the severity of how the greenhouse damage has affected - I'm struggling to understand that, because I know that when individuals, whether it's fishing or the greenhouse industry, I would think that you could do a short-term evaluation of - you made reference to the farmer with the pumping system. If that was bought 10 years ago, I could quickly go back and get an invoice and get the cost of that 10 years ago. I could quickly go out and do an estimate of the cost today, and I could project or an accountant could project what that would cost in six months' time.
My question is - this time is going to elapse, and the greenhouse operators are going to be in a struggle to get all this information. This is something that's really serious between the provincial minister and his federal counterpart and the industry to say, we need a better system to do an evaluation of getting an assessment, and recognize that, yes, this will probably take another six months or whatever to get the full picture. Just recognize that - recognize what I tried to explain there. You could say, okay, we could have 50 per cent of this, but when we get a total picture, then the farmer, the greenhouse operator who is affected, can apply for the full amount. That's a simplistic way of addressing this.
If those individuals have to wait for a period of time to elapse to get the total picture, I think there are some concerns around that. I think the greenhouse industry would have those same concerns. I would ask you to expand on that.
MR. COLWELL: The quick answer to your question is, if you have some magic way to make the ice and snow that everything is buried under disappear, we can move right away with the claim. The problem is, we don't know the extent of the damage. We can't go on an estimate. The program that's in place is not estimate-based. It's actual-fact-based.
If we look at that pump that's buried under all this ice, it may be in good condition. It may be fine. The motor may be ruined, but the casing could be broken on it - we have no idea, and that's only one example. We've got heating systems that are buried under snow. They may be fine. They may just need the repair people to come in and do some repairs on them - a few hundred dollars, they're fixed. They may be wiped out, in which case it's going to be several thousand dollars.
We can't estimate, because if we estimate, the industry will lose big time. It's better to do it right. It's like having a car: you've got a little bend on the fender - doesn't look like much, but you come to find out your frame is twisted and the car is a writeoff. So is it better to go to the insurance company and say, fix that little spot on my car, or to really check it out and say, well, my frame is twisted, I'd better get another car? Because once the dent is fixed, that doesn't mean you can drive that car.
So that's the sort of approach. These programs are very specific, and if you have a piece of equipment - and some of the equipment in these greenhouses is not cheap - and miss that piece of equipment, and you say three weeks afterward, I forgot to put that in - it's too late. If it's buried under snow and you have no idea what kind of condition it's in - if it even survived the crash, maybe some posts came down and destroyed it or whatever happened, and you don't have that in there - then you're going to be in a worse situation financially because you haven't accessed the one thing you can get - maybe.
And again, it's "maybe," because we don't know if we can even fit these programs, because there are some issues around insurance and other things that we're still working on. If we don't do this absolutely the best way we can, we could do more damage to the industry by rushing in to do this, making an estimate, and finding at the end of the day that we've asked for $8 million and it's really $25 million. So which would be worse? You can't recover from that kind of mistake.
This is a really serious issue. We've got to do it right. It takes time to do it right. I wish the snow was gone, because I'd love to see those greenhouses being under construction right now to repair them - I really would - and all the equipment that goes with them so they can get up and ready and maybe recoup some of the year, maybe into the Fall, in some circumstances - depending on what they grow.
So I want to see this fixed. I know you do as well, and that you have the same concerns I have, but we've got to do it right. If we don't do it right, it could kill the industry forever.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Thank you very much for that, minister. Before I move off this topic, I just want to leave you with a visual. What we talked about earlier was the insurance and the policy starting. If everybody in this room reflects, and if they watch television as much as I do, you know that the insurance company actually has a guy on the phone calling the insurance broker. There's a time clock ticking, and he's talking about the file. When he bangs the hand - that's the visual - his file has been started within 14 minutes. I'm just trying to recognize that there is a way of addressing this until you get the final results. Anyway, it was a good topic, and I'm glad I could raise that on behalf of the greenhouse industry.
One of the industries, as I mentioned earlier in my introduction, that I had the privilege of sitting alongside of my colleagues from Hants East - I know that during previous years, the hog industry in Nova Scotia has been seriously affected. I know that many of those individuals have moved on to other product lines. I can assure you, as one of the individuals in this House who supports the hog industry every morning, I appreciate that industry, but I was somewhat concerned about how that industry has been devastated over this last decade. I'm wondering where that industry is now, and what the potential for future growth is.
In some of my remarks I've heard you talk about the future - actually, the increased opportunities for farms in Nova Scotia. With that, I'll ask you to give us an update on the hog industry.
MR. COLWELL: Actually, I was quite surprised the first time I met with the hog industry. I had the same opinion that you have, and not ever directly talking to the industry, didn't realize where they were.
The hog industry in Nova Scotia is not where it was 10 years ago. It may never be back there again, and that's fine, but the hog industry in Nova Scotia, believe it or not, is expanding. They're going to small piglets and they're shipping them to the U.S. They can't supply the demand.
If you're going to try to produce hogs and export them outside of Nova Scotia, you might as well forget it - a full grown hog - because we can't do it enough. We don't have the food supply. That's the big problem, is getting an economical food supply.
So that's a problem, but the piglets and anything that you want to grow in Nova Scotia, consume in Nova Scotia, or even if eventually we can get a CFIA-approved facility for processing them in Atlantic Canada - a reasonable market for them - and probably can supply all the market we need easily. But the little piglets that they're doing now, the U.S. - well, they had a virus and wiped out almost all their flocks down there, so they can actually take - we can produce them cheaper here, the small pigs, than they can in the U.S. They ship to the U.S., they finish them, and they send us back the finished product, which is not a good scenario.
The point of the matter is, the industry has adapted. Many people got out of it and got into other things, and become very successful at other things they've done in the farming industry. It's a continuous transition. It all comes down to operating costs, which includes food. Food is the biggest issue when it comes to products like hogs, because you have to feed them every day. They're not like cattle and sheep that you can put out to graze.
The industry is alive. It's very well. We've got some very innovative people - some very science-based farmers that, again, when you look at the industry, you say, well, there's no science here - but there is science here, and they've really taken advantage of that. They see where the market is. They've done the market analysis. They've done their cost analysis, and we have some producers in the province who are making a very good living in the industry.
As you do all these things, they've done it also with a great deal of understanding of bio-security to make sure the animals don't get sick. That's an issue that we continuously have now in agriculture that didn't exist probably 50 years ago, or even less than 50 years - maybe 20 years ago.
I'll give you an example of one of the operations we have. It's a vertically-integrated operation - a small operation - and if you haven't been there, you should go and try their products. It's Meadowbrook Farm in the Valley. They actually grow their own pork. They process it. They're CFIA-approved to do all their processing. They smoke. They come up with some very innovative products. I can tell you, I bought some of them, and they're really top quality. You can't find anywhere in the world that's any better quality than this small operation is doing.
That's the kind of innovation we're seeing in Nova Scotia. It's surprising - you drive down this long old road, and there's nothing on the road except a house here and there. Then all of a sudden you come to a group of buildings, and here is this beautiful facility that someone has built that's producing products that are world-class. That's what's happening in Nova Scotia.
We don't give our people in the province credit enough. I got sick and tired when I was running my business, travelling all over the world, and when I'd come home again - we can't do that in Nova Scotia. You sit in the boardrooms with some of these people - no matter where you go in the world with an engineering ring on - from TUNS, at the time - vice-presidents of companies in other places in the world.
So we have the talent here. We have the things and we're doing the things, but we don't talk about it. We don't give our people enough credit. We have to celebrate those successes and help those individuals become more successful.
As I said earlier, I've challenged the industry, and I continue to challenge them, to make money. We need them to make money. We need them to make money because if they can make money, they can expand. They can hire more people. They can do in life what they need to do. They can have their children educated any way they want to. They can travel. Whatever they decide they want to do . . .
But we can also get the tax revenue from them without putting the taxes up to pay for the service that same family needs to pay for - health care, roads, education. They have bought into this, and they're coming back to me now, challenging me and our government to help them do it, and that's what I want to see happen. We all have to work toward this - everyone in this room. Everyone in the province has to work toward this.
We want these young people, like these young ladies standing here, to stay in the province and help our economy grow. That's what we need to have happen. We're working on that, and the industry is. We're seeing a lot more young people in the farming industry, which is really good. We need a lot more, but we see a lot of them. But you can't do that - you can't take over a farm or any kind of business if it's not making money, because you've got to have that profit margin. That's how you pay for it. So if you get an almost-zero profit margin, you can't afford to buy the business.
We're really starting to work on that through the programs we have. Challenge people - what advantage is this program going to be to you, and how is it going to help your business? We want them to start thinking about that. So if they're going to make an investment through a program we have - we may put in $10,000 and they have to put $40,000 in, and they say, that's a good investment for me. But maybe it's not worth getting that $10,000 because it's not going to make a difference in my enterprise. If it's not going to make a difference in my enterprise, it won't help me make money. If it doesn't help me make money, I can't afford to do it.
That's where we are in the industry, and it's so important that we cultivate that appreciation for operating in the society we operate in now, which we hope we operate in for many, many years to come. Free enterprise really drives the economy, and we need that to happen. You're a prime example of that, with the work you did in the fishing industry. That's such an important industry to us as well.
We have to get those people generated. We have to get them excited about it, and we have to put the science and the tools in place for them to access and to challenge us to provide to them, so that we can help them grow their business, so their children will stay in the province and grow the business even better than their mothers and fathers and their grandparents did. That's what we're trying to challenge the industry to do, and they're responding. They are responding to the point that it's going to be difficult to fill their needs, but that is really good news.
MR. BELLIVEAU: I'm going to take a lead from one of your earlier notes here in this last presentation, talking about celebrating an industry. I want to turn your attention now to the mink industry of Nova Scotia. If I could just back up a couple of years, my understanding of the time - if my math was right - was that they were either first or second in the agriculture sector for producing money. To me, that was a success story. I know that they have had some slippage or struggle in the last year or two simply because of the market conditions across the world - Asia and China.
That industry has dealt with some environmental issues. I know that you have put forward and worked with the industry regulations that have been endorsed by the industry, so I want to recognize the success of that industry, especially in rural Nova Scotia and specifically in the tri-counties areas of Nova Scotia. I know the importance of that, but I also ask the minister if he could update us on what I tried to describe. They had a very successful two years, and I know they have had some struggles in the last year. Where are they now? Thank you.
MR. COLWELL: The mink industry is a very, very important part of our economy. It employs roughly 1,100 people annually over the past 10 years. In the province alone it has contributed approximately $65 million in taxes paid directly to the province, never mind the money they paid to the municipalities for property taxes and also to the federal government's income tax system.
It's a very exciting industry. They were number two in Nova Scotian exports and agriculture. Blueberries were number one and they were number two. They typically would export, and their product is very unique in the province. It's 100 per cent export. They would typically run $100 million to $110 million per year export. They have had a downturn in the demand in Russia and China because some political changes there have caused the price to go down slightly. Last year the price went down some. This year the prices are rebounding. They're coming up again. They are doing better than they were, but not where we've seen the high, high prices we've seen before.
We work very closely with the industry on this. We've taken some very solid action. One of the industry people we talk to - more than one, actually - has indicated to us that they've never seen this kind of co-operation from the government working with the industry. They activated the AgriRecovery program, and that did cost us some cash, but we will recover that in taxes from that industry in no time flat, which is a good investment long-term.
In the meantime, they'll be able to get in place. We have not given them any money, and we told them we would not give them any money. If they needed money for operating, they were going to have to borrow the money. They accepted that, but at the same time we started looking at the scientific solutions to some other problems.
We're looking at the quality of the fur, we're looking at the food, how we feed them, how much food you feed them, and all kinds of different approaches to make them more profitable, even at a lower price. If we can make them profitable at a lower price, that means that when the price goes sky high they'll make a huge margin, and the more margin they make and the more money they make, the more tax revenue we can get from them, which all goes together.
The industry is extremely important. I know in your area it's extremely important - not only to the mink industry and to the jobs it creates directly, but all the hardware stores - the fishing industry, all the offal off the fishing industry, which makes our mink some of the most sought-after mink in the world. That's what the fishing industry contributes to it that they don't get credit for: to feed their feed mills and their feed kitchens. That is a pretty sophisticated place.
Again, if you talk about farming, you've probably seen the feed kitchen they have, or one of them. I think of robots - robots in the feed kitchen, and very sophisticated processing equipment that you would never think of in the farming industry. Typically you think of a guy going up and down the fields with a tractor and that's it. So they're employing modern technology, and the processing facility that they built themselves, with all their own money - huge freezer capacity - is state of the art.
They've done everything possible to ensure that the animals are treated properly and that when they're harvested, they're harvested properly, in the most humane way that can possibly be done, to international standards. They have done an incredible job. If you just drive down the road and see these little buildings there, you have no idea what's in them or what's going on there. They work hard at it. They're very hard-working, very progressive people, and excellent to deal with - as you would know, because you would know a lot of them in your area.
They have become very successful with very little help from us, except for science and research on things that they're working on. We're excited about that. We know the industry will come back, and when it comes back it's going to be stronger than ever. We're going to continue to work with them in the future to help improve more and more stuff.
We also are putting a mink research chair in place at Dalhousie, a permanent one that we can fund. This year we did contribute substantially toward research, and we're going to continue to do that to help the whole industry.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I ask the minister and yourself to bear with me. To make this point, I'm going to take you in a different direction.
Four or five years ago I had the privilege of going to Copenhagen and visiting an energy plant. I was deeply interested in that energy plant, and observed how they were feeding their boilers. It was through straw - straw that was harvested from the farmers' fields.
The point I'm trying to make here is that I want to know if there is any interest here. Can that technology be adapted here to, first of all, help the farmers in Nova Scotia create a cash crop? Secondly - and we all heard this from me many times before - we have a shortage of firewood. I'm sitting here seeing an opportunity for our farmers to address an opportunity - perhaps not going for the big bio; you know what I'm trying to say here - for the feeders of these large energy plants. That wood could be used in a friendlier way for the consumers of Nova Scotia.
There is an issue to be addressed, and I was impressed with the use of this straw as an energy source in Copenhagen. It literally came off the farmers' fields, and if my memory is correct, 5 per cent of their energy was generated from straw. It's an interesting question, and I ask if the minister could enlighten us on that.
MR. COLWELL: I'm pretty pleased that the honourable member mentioned this energy source. I think that's a thing.
I'm going to go back to the mink industry again, and give you an example of what's going on there. They have been incredibly innovative. They have created a bio-digester for mink waste, in conjunction with the municipality. It's in production now, producing electricity, so they are taking the mink waste and making electricity from it.
They've also got a pellet mill up and running, or just about running, to produce different types of fertilizer, so it's totally integrated. Nothing is wasted. Absolutely nothing is wasted. It's very, very positive.
We also have a pilot project now where they're trying to make pellets that you would use for your pellet stove out of straw and waste hay - the stuff that you couldn't feed to the animals. We've also built a grass pellet furnace at Perennia to heat the facility there. They're going through the usual research and development stuff, and it is taking a while to get it in place, but you make a very good point. If we can use grass or straw or whatever the case may be, or junk wood that we can turn into an energy source, it's great.
The unfortunate part of that is, when the oil price goes down, the cost of these things are usually slightly higher than low-cost energy. The energy will come back up. We know that. It's just a matter of when. So we're continuing research on that, and we're looking at all kinds of potential opportunities around that. It all goes back to the research and development.
I'm going to give you one more example of research and development. In the blueberry industry, we had the biggest crop in history. That wasn't weather conditions. It was helped by the weather conditions, but it was no accident. It was because of research. Dalhousie University at the Agricultural College worked very closely with Bragg's Oxford Frozen Foods to build the technology around growing blueberries. This year they got 15 times the crop that they've ever seen, and it's all based on science - no genetic engineering, just proper plant care: what to do, and when and how to do it. These are the sorts of things that are happening in this province, that are so exciting.
So using straw is an excellent idea. It has to be cost effective, and it has to be done in a way that it can continually make money, even with the ups and downs in the price of energy.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Again, I want to take you, minister - and I know people realize they have an hour of time, but the time goes very fast when trying to get all your questions in.
One of the questions we have in our communities, minister, is that each year, all across Nova Scotia, especially in rural Nova Scotia, we have exhibitions. A lot of them are agriculture, and I point out, too, in the tri-counties, one is the Shelburne Exhibition, and the other one is Yarmouth. I know both of those are struggling at times. Both have come to me and said, we'd love to get the minister's attention and make sure we get the small grants that we apply for. In the scheme of things, a $10 billion budget, these are important. They are not much money, but they are a lot of money to that particular small community.
I would like for you to - I know this question always comes up. I attend these exhibitions on a yearly basis, and I know a lot of people across Nova Scotia, with all generations, the grandchildren, visit these particular exhibitions. They are important, but the exhibitions are always struggling. Can the minister update us on if this is going to continue, and the industry is going to have to struggle to find out if their applications have been approved?
MR. COLWELL: You raise a very important question for a very important part of our rural community. The local exhibitions are critical to our province. It's part of rural life that a lot of people don't get a chance to experience. By going to an exhibition and talking to a farmer or a producer, they get a unique opportunity that isn't always offered. We can't get it here in Halifax. It is so nice to see that interaction between the exhibition and the industry, and also people who come to visit.
We do provide $226,000 a year to Exhibition Nova Scotia. They have a formula that they use to disburse that money to all the exhibitions in the province. The answer is yes, they will be funded again this year. The formula is decided by that group.
If one of your groups thinks they're not getting their fair share under the formula, please let me know and we can review it. We want all the exhibitions to survive. They operate mostly on volunteers, and we appreciate the tremendous work they do and the facilities they've built over the years and how hard it is today to keep everything open with energy costs so high, and now the maintenance costs are starting to catch up with some of those facilities.
They're an exciting part of a rural life, and we have to maintain those. If you would like to sometime discuss it in more detail, I'd be only too pleased to do that.
MR. BELLIVEAU: I'm glad I had the opportunity to ask that question, because the volunteers really appreciate those particular applications and grants.
I want to take the minister in a different direction. I know in his earlier remarks, my colleague raised the issue about drainage. He also raised, I believe, concerning the dike system. In Annapolis Valley my history books taught me that the Acadians were the ones that created them. I'm very familiar with the rise of the sea level, and I understand that they have built - and some of that infrastructure has been there for a number of years. I also observed, being from southwest Nova Scotia, that we have a lot of granite and stones in Nova Scotia.
One of the questions I want to present to you is that, to me, there have to be some infrastructure improvements in some of those dike systems. I don't think I have to tell too many people in here how the geography of Nova Scotia - we simply have plenty of armour stone, but my question is, has the minister ever been in discussions with the federal government to come up with a program to address this? This has a lot of effect not only on the agriculture industry but also on communities and the infrastructure and some of the severe weather events that we've witnessed over the last few years.
MR. COLWELL: This is a very important question. When you look at the dikes, some were built 400 years ago. There are several hundred aboiteaux, which are automatic drain systems, and some of them are still in existence.
We are now presently in construction in the Tantramar Marshes. We're putting $5 million into a major new aboiteau that's there. That should be there for a long time. We're putting $2 million a year for five years into the dike structure to do some repairs and also to raise it another three feet on top of sea level.
It's a massive job. We've got a great staff working on that. They're very responsive. They're very careful about what they do, and they're very innovative too. I will often get a request from them to sign off on a purchase order to buy some material in a location where maybe they're building a road or the municipality is doing something or someone is building a new industrial building, and they've got all kinds of fill they want to get rid of pretty cheap. So we'll buy that fill, which really spreads our $2 million a whole lot further. So they're very innovative. They will go to the scrapyard and buy steel and fabricate the aboiteau parts for a fraction of the cost of what it would be to buy it commercially, and they work as well as, if not better than, what you can buy commercially. We've got a very innovative staff that are working on that.
There have always been some issues around them. We are protecting some areas, though, that aren't agricultural land anymore, so that raises a question. We've had some municipalities build some structures within a dike system that maybe shouldn't have been there, but those decisions were made years ago. As we look at this whole picture of the aboiteaux and the drainage problems in the province, it's important that we maintain these things as something the Acadians did build, because as I say, a lot of it was 400 years old.
It's interesting to see. I've visited the dike at Grand-Pré. My wife's family had a cottage on Evangeline Beach, and we'd often go there. She has some relatives there that work and they have farms in that area - and how very important it is.
But drainage is a serious issue for us. We know it is, not only from a dike standpoint but also for soil drainage to get the right conditions to have the right kind of crops growing in the province so that our farmers can become more profitable and we can expand.
MR. BELLIVEAU: Before I move on, one thing that intrigued me in the minister's earlier remarks was the Tantramar Marshes. I can't emphasize enough the importance of that main corridor there and having that shored up with armour stone. That's a vital link to actually getting serious about the survival of our province. I think the minister understands the point I'm trying to make here.
One of the interesting studies is - I think it's the University of Guelph - in the last six months it talked about rising food costs. Over the next year they anticipate that our food costs are going to rise somewhere between 3 per cent and 5 per cent. To me, I automatically think, well, this is going to benefit our farmers.
Madam Chairman, through you, I've heard the minister talk a number of times about the expanding of this industry, of agriculture. I know in southwest Nova Scotia there has been a climate study done that talked about how there is a climate in there that's friendly to farming, and yet the industry has been developed in fishing. To me, there are opportunities there, and I've heard the minister give many opportunities and talk about how they can expand the agricultural industry. In the last few minutes I have, I'll ask if he could identify some potential opportunities. Thank you.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you, that's a very good question. There are tremendous opportunities, as I've talked about earlier. We have some of the best microclimates - and I say "microclimates" - to grow grapes in the world. We're poised to grow exponentially in that industry.
You're absolutely right when you say that in southwest Nova Scotia there are lots of areas that families would farm and fish years ago, but today they fish, and thank goodness they make a very good living fishing. We want them to continue to do that. There have been a lot of studies done, and we're going to do more, around the microclimates and temperature, rainfall, hours of sunshine, all of those things. It has been done by the community college down there, and I want to commend them for the work they have been doing. They really had some foresight into this.
We would never think that through the centre of the province in Nova Scotia there are some extremely good microclimates that are perfect for growing some products like grapes and some other crops - maybe apples - that have not been grown there in generations. We're identifying more and more of those things, and interestingly enough, when we talk to people who are interested in investing in Nova Scotia on a pretty good scale, in farming or a related industry, they want this information. If they have that information, they can make informed decisions rather than guessing what's going to happen with this.
I remember I met with a very large company in the wine industry, and the first question they asked when they met with us - we said that we'd like to talk with them about maybe putting a vineyard in Nova Scotia - was, we need to know what the climate information is. I said, we have it. They said, share it with us and we may make an investment.
That was a conversation, that without that information - you're absolutely right. Without that accurate information, it's not like you can go and say, I'm going to plant a tree over here and it's going to be great. That's not how it works anymore. You have to check the soil and you have to check the weather conditions in that area; 100 feet away, the temperatures may be drastically different through the whole season. Maybe too high, maybe too low, maybe all kinds of things. It could be more prone to frost in that location than it is in this location. There are all kinds of variables. That's why, again, I stress science. Science is a solution to a lot of our problems.
The United Nations have done a study that we don't talk about much, but we need to start talking about this. In 20 to 40 years' time there's not going to be enough food production in the world to feed the middle class. This is not the Third World, this is the middle class. This is a study that has been done by the UN. The middle class - 65 per cent of the middle class is going to be in Asia. Not in North America, in Asia. Think about that.
We have all kinds of farmland that's not being used, and over the years we've built houses on some of this prime land, which should never have happened, but it did. We see this demand for food, and Asia is buying our lobster now. Not long ago I used this example here: we did a promotion in Asia, and we sold 80,000 lobsters, worth $2.2 million, in 24 hours. The reason we didn't sell more is that we ran out. We could have sold 150,000, maybe more, if we'd had the lobster. But we ran out. We underestimated the demand.
We've got an area that's got lots of wealth because of the manufacturing they do, and cheap labour that wants high-quality products, willing to pay a premium price for it, so we need to deliver quality, on time, and at a high price. I'm not saying "low price" - we always talk low price. Low prices don't make any money. Let someone else grow that product and get 2 cents a pound on it. We want to get $1.50 a pound on it. At the end of the day, we'll still be in business and they'll be out. Very good question. I appreciate that, and I look forward to some more.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Would the honourable minister like to have a five-minute recess before we proceed with more questioning?
MR. COLWELL: No.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: No, we're good. We will proceed to the Official Opposition.
The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: My first question - and I will get back to the questions we were at an hour ago, but I noticed that last year the Crop and Livestock Insurance Commission report and the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board report were included in the budget material, and this year we didn't receive those reports. I'm just wondering if you could explain what happened with that.
MR. COLWELL: Unfortunately, we don't do those things - the Treasury and Policy Board does that - but they're available online. I don't know why they didn't include them, but they're all available online, all the information.
MR. LOHR: Normally there would be a document prepared which would be called - this was last year's version - Crown Corporation Business Plans. That document wasn't provided this year, and I just ask why this document wasn't provided this year.
MR. COLWELL: It's probably an oversight from the Treasury and Policy Board, but we can make sure you get copies of those in very short order.
MR. LOHR: Just to clarify, we're in the first day of estimates and this will be provided for my colleagues to use? I mean, there are many different portions of estimates which would be drilling down into different portions of this, correct? So will this be provided next week sometime for my use and for my colleagues' use in other departments?
MR. COLWELL: I can only comment on Agriculture. We will make our documents available when we have them. We'll make them available in print. Again, they're online.
I can't speak for any other department. That's beyond my responsibility, so you'll have to ask the other departments specifically.
MR. LOHR: I am aware that they were available online. I figured that out this morning too.
The point is that I do think that having it in print version is very useful to us, and for whatever reason that it was not available, it's sort of a glaring omission that those important documents aren't available in our hands for all members of the House this year. So I would just like to make a comment on that and request that that be addressed.
I think I was just starting to ask about changes in the budget for - and I will get specific - the Office of the Minister and Deputy Minister. I notice that this year you're going from the actual - I think the estimate from last year was four full-time staff in the minister's office, and the actual turned out to be 5.1 - I'm not sure who the 0.1 was - but this year we're going to seven. Last year the estimated actual was $641,000, and I notice we're going to $685,000. So for $44,000, as I can see it, you're adding two full-time equivalents.
I wonder if you can explain how the minister's office is adding two full-time equivalents for about $20,000 each, if I read the math right in the document.
MR. COLWELL: Actually, the change, from what I understand - I don't look after personnel stuff - is that we moved one director from Economic and Rural Development and Tourism to our department and our office to do marketing. That individual is there for most of the year. We also had an administrative assistant allowance for the deputy minister with the two departments to help handle that workload.
There have been no staff added for me at all. We are at the exact same staff as we've had and we will continue with for as long as I'm there.
MR. LOHR: If I understand what you said - maybe you can correct me if I didn't hear this correctly, but you said that you had someone from ERDT last year, I believe? Part of that increase in cost was from ERDT? But we're still going to seven this year, so can you explain to me how you're going from four to seven? I don't know if I caught that.
MR. COLWELL: I'll finally get this straight too. We added one individual from Economic and Rural Development and Tourism - just a straight transfer - and from there it was an executive director's position that isn't filled yet. For our office here we don't have an executive director in Agriculture anymore, period. I think we had five when I first went there, and we're down to zero now. We only have directors and an administrative assistant for the deputy minister.
At the end of the day, the cost for this is neutral. We've transferred people from one area to another area, either from Economic and Rural Development and Tourism - which was actually a very good thing for him, with the present announcements. We're super happy to have him, because we really had to start working on marketing. That's an integral part of helping to make the industry grow and make money. We're very happy with that move.
The basic bottom line is our salary, and our full-time equivalents in the department are neutral overall. We just moved some people to Halifax where we could work with them more closely, rather than being in a remote area in the province.
MR. LOHR: I understand what you're saying about revenue neutral for the overall government but not for your department.
I'm just curious to know what the relationship is between your staff. Are some of your staff working part-time for Agriculture and some part-time for Fisheries and Aquaculture? Would I be correct in saying that some of your staff work for part of the time for one department and part of the time for the other?
MR. COLWELL: Actually, the policy department works for both departments, which keeps our costs down. It's really an effective way to do it. We also lean on policy people from other departments to work with our staff as needed.
Again, as we're trying to move the economy forward, we need that kind of resource, and it's nice to be able to have it for both departments without having a duplicate staff. The correction was that it's revenue-neutral for our department, not just the government. We transferred a marketing gentleman in from ERDT, so we got that revenue, but we also reduced revenues. So for ours, we're just totally neutral on what happened in all this.
MR. LOHR: Okay, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that during the year you passed here you had a deputy minister - you lost a deputy minister, right? Can I ask you what sort of impact the severance package had on the loss of that deputy minister? Can you explain that?
MR. COLWELL: That's a personnel affair. I have no idea. I really don't know what the cost of that was. I don't believe there was any cost associated with that. Indeed, we had a deputy minister and an assistant deputy minister, so actually we've saved a substantial amount of money by just having the very capable deputy minister, who we have with us here today. We're not going to go to an assistant deputy minister, so it's actually a substantial saving for us.
MR. LOHR: So to circle back around to the beginning of this conversation, last year when we did the estimates, you were projecting the cost of the Office of the Minister to be about $513,000; the actual turned out to be, I would say, 25 per cent more - I'm just guessing, maybe 20 per cent more - at $641,000. Now you are projecting a further increase in your department. Maybe in asking all these questions you explained that, but just explain to me the justification for these increases in the cost of your office.
MR. COLWELL: The reason for the changes - when we brought in the staff from Economic and Rural Development and Tourism for part of the year, it showed an increase in our budget. This year it will be a full salary, and that's what the change is. Again, it's for our salary over the department. It's neutral. We're just moving people in where they're more accessible for us to work with, and it has been proven to be very effective operationally.
MR. LOHR: I would like to switch gears and ask a question about rent. Maybe the minister could tell me - because it doesn't show up in the specifics - what are the specifics of the rents that the Department of Agriculture is paying in various locations? I'll give you a couple of examples. One would be, what are we paying for rent at the Kentville Research Station? What rent is the department paying in Truro?
MR. COLWELL: Unfortunately, I don't have that readily available. If you'd like to give me a list of where you want to find out what the rent is in each place, we'll gladly supply it.
MR. LOHR: Well, I'd be interested in the two areas that I mentioned, and I guess I would add in Cornwallis Park. I understand that the Department of Agriculture pays some rent to the Dalhousie Agricultural College for offices there. Would that be correct?
MR. COLWELL: We actually occupy a whole building there - one whole building and part of another building. The only thing I can give you for sure is that our total rent costs for everything in Agriculture are $800,000 a year - all our facilities all over the province, and we're spread out pretty broadly in the area, down in Kentville and Truro and some other places. It's $800,000 a year, but again, if you want to give me a list of the particular areas, we'll give you the details. Not a problem.
MR. LOHR: I'm not saying that I know the answer to this question, exactly, but I was under the impression that the rent in Truro for the Dalhousie Agricultural College was something in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. Would that range be correct?
MR. COLWELL: At the risk of not giving you accurate information - I want to give you accurate information - I think it's about $38,000 a month at the Dalhousie Agricultural College for all the space we occupy there. Like I say, it's one full building. It's most of another building. We have a pretty big footprint on the Dalhousie Agricultural College campus, so it's about $38,000 a month. But again, if you give me a list of the places you want to know about, we'll gladly give you detailed information on what the rent is.
MR. LOHR: So you're essentially saying that nearly half of the rent money paid by the Department of Agriculture is paid to the Dalhousie Agricultural College campus, then? Because $38,000 a month would be approximately $400,000. Would that be correct?
MR. COLWELL: That's correct.
MR. LOHR: I'm interested - if you could just enlighten me on the Northumberland House and the age of that building and where it stands - I know that it's in the department's plans to renovate that building - and where the renovation is and the cost of that renovation of the Northumberland House.
MR. COLWELL: That's a question that you're going to have to ask in the estimates of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. They're handling all of the aspects of that renovation.
MR. LOHR: But it is Department of Agriculture money, correct?
MR. COLWELL: It's actually capital money, so it's not our money. It's capital money that will be addressed for the whole province in different projects, so TIR is presently doing that. They are working on it, and we hope to move into it - hopefully soon. I don't know the exact date. They ran into trouble and found asbestos in the building. They had to correct that, so it slowed down the operation there.
MR. LOHR: Can you enlighten me as to the number of office spaces that you will acquire with this Northumberland House rebuild?
MR. COLWELL: We think it's going to be about 50 spaces. Again, TIR did the design and all the work on it, so on those particular questions, they could probably give you more detailed information than we can.
MR. LOHR: Could I ask the minister what the total cost of the rebuild is?
MR. COLWELL: Again, we're a tenant there. We think it is around $5 million, but again, you really have to ask TIR those questions, because we don't do that. When they're all done they will give us the building to occupy and away we go, but until that time they're totally in charge of the project - the design, the financing on it, everything that goes through all the capital projects. We really don't have anything to do with it.
MR. LOHR: If I understand, there's going to be 50 office spaces acquired through the rebuild of this house, and presumably then some but not all of the rental. Obviously that wouldn't recover all of the rental at the Dalhousie Agricultural College that you're paying. Some of the staff that are currently with the Department of Agriculture at the Dalhousie Agricultural College would move into the Northumberland House. Would that be correct?
MR. COLWELL: It's not necessarily 50 offices. It's 50 spaces, and I have no idea what those spaces are. The majority would be offices. But it would be the Dalhousie Agricultural College, the official loan board - that's another building we occupy, which I forgot about. That's three buildings that we occupy on the campus. We would be consolidating our staff in that area, which will make very good cost-effective sense and operational sense for us.
MR. LOHR: Just to recap that: $5 million invested in an old building with asbestos in it to gain 50 spaces, approximately. I know these numbers are all hazy, but my question is, is that a good use of provincial money, to be rebuilding an old building in Truro?
MR. COLWELL: The building is going to be unique because it's going to be a one-stop shop for all the farmers. So if they go in, instead of having to run all over the place to get the different services, there is going to be one place they can go get all of the services. So from a service standpoint, that is going to be very much worth it.
I have not personally done an evaluation on the rent we pay now compared to the cost of the renovation and what that stuff does. I don't do that for the department. That's all handled by TIR in their process of getting buildings back in play, so again, you should ask them about that analysis. I'm sure they would have some really good information around that.
TIR evidently did an evaluation on it some time ago, and the structure of the building is such that it's the best bang for our buck we can get for that kind of space in a building we own, on a piece of property we own, so we won't have to pay rent out in the future.
MR. LOHR: When I think back to the past year in your department, one of the big themes we had was issues around food safety and rural livelihoods and rural small businesses. I'm thinking specifically of the abattoirs and turkeys. I'm just wondering, what is your plan to address some of these issues going forward?
MR. COLWELL: Well, that's a question you're going to have to ask the Minister of Environment, because he's going to be taking the responsibility for inspections. All the enforcement is going to the Department of Environment. They'll be working on that as of July 1st. The transition is already slowly starting, so you'll have to ask him that particular question. That's totally his responsibility and not ours anymore.
MR. LOHR: I can appreciate your delight to wash your hands of that issue, maybe, but I would ask you, clearly there is legislation that enables - I think through the Natural Products Act - the Turkey Marketing Board had some role in that. Will you be bringing in legislation to change the role of these marketing boards in inspecting abattoirs?
MR. COLWELL: Again, this whole process is in transition, and I'm not really sure where everything is going to land yet, but food inspection and food safety, all enforcement issues, will be going to the Department of Environment. I believe we're going to keep the regulatory part of it as part of our regular process.
The situation we were in - particularly in our department, we were the regulator and the enforcer. It was a very touchy situation. It had been like that for years, and it was identified that that's not the way we want to do business. We can't do business that way.
As this all evolves over time - I hate to lose the top-quality staff we have in food inspection. I can tell you, they're incredible people. They've done an exceptional job. They managed to keep our regulatory part completely separate from our enforcement part. They did an exceptional job with a very tough job to do, and the industry was very happy with the services. They were both working with the industry at the same time, making sure they're tough when they needed to be tough, laying charges when they need to lay charges, and if it was a simple thing that had to be fixed, they would go in, assess the risk, and come back and say, okay, this is not a big risk to the public health, so we'll give you a week to fix it - or whatever the appropriate time was. They really did that.
I'm going to miss that group of people. I'm glad we're not going to have to have that dilemma again that we had with enforcement and regulation. We'll still be doing the regulations, as far as I know, and they will be doing the enforcement. We're going to lose a group of highly-trained professionals who do an excellent job. I know that when they move to the new department, they'll be very welcome there with their professionalism.
I'd also like to recognize Barry MacGregor, who's in the audience up here today, and who will be transferring over. We're going to miss him greatly when he goes, but it's going to be a better set-up for all of us. Hopefully as we move this forward, it's going to really define where our lines are between enforcement and regulation. That's important for us.
MR. LOHR: I can appreciate what you're saying about the conflict in both promoting industry and enforcing - I understand that, and I would suggest to you that for the marketing boards, that is likewise an issue where they're marketing the turkeys, or whatever product, in the Natural Products Act. They're marketing and they're also charged in the Natural Products Act with controlling or some sort of food safety role.
I do believe that Act is part of the Department of Agriculture, so under your mandate will there be amendments made to the Natural Products Act to take these marketing boards out of this dual role of being responsible for both the food safety aspects of it, like being inspectors, and marketing and promoting their product?
MR. COLWELL: I'm not sure how I can answer that, because I don't know. But basically, from what I understand, the only food inspection that the Turkey Marketing Board does is go into a facility - are you CFIA approved, or are you provincially approved? If the answer is no, then they can issue an order to shut them down. They don't do the inspection to see if the facility is up to standard or not. They only want to know if there is a standard - the CFIA or the provincial standard - adhered to at that facility. If it isn't, they have the authority to say, okay, you can't produce these under that Act anymore. So they don't actually do inspections for food safety or for the process of producing the product.
MR. LOHR: If I understand correctly, you are taking the food safety piece of the pie out of the Department of Agriculture and moving it. So if we just look at the issue and think about what rural Nova Scotia needs, rural Nova Scotia needs more places where people who are growing four or five turkeys can go and get them slaughtered. They need to have more options. There's just a very limited number of abattoirs in the province. What are you doing as Minister of Agriculture to address that lack of abattoirs, and also, to be frank, to bring up the level of food safety compliance in the existing abattoirs?
MR. COLWELL: The existing ones that are provincially inspected are up to standard. They are checked all the time for standards. They check water quality, and there are all kinds of processes they go through. The federal ones are done by the federal government under the CFIA.
The problem is that over the years - and your previous government and the Third Party's government never did anything to correct this - we basically have 20 abattoirs in the province right now that are certified provincially. We're working on one, a lamb operation, to CFIA approval. We already have a state-of-the-art chicken processing facility - which is state of the art in the world, actually - here in Nova Scotia, in the Valley. It processes chickens and turkeys. They're high volume, totally integrated. They're state of the art. They're all computerized. There's nothing that they don't have there to work with.
The other ones - that aren't illegal, because the regulations have never been changed - there are approximately somewhere between 35 and 40 of those doing all kinds of different things under all kinds of different conditions.
The questions that come from your Party to defend these little guys that are out there producing turkeys and doing all these wonderful things they are doing for the community, and no one has ever gotten sick yet, well, that issue is - you're asking me a sort of double-edged question here. On one hand, your Party says to let these little guys do whatever they want, and now you're saying that we've got to improve food safety. So which is it going to be?
MR. LOHR: As the minister knows, for instance, every year in Nova Scotia there are, I assume, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 deer shot. Presumably most of those are butchered, too, and consumed by the people of the province. These very small operations - I would suggest to the minister that it is incumbent on him to put together a plan, not to put them out of business but to help them meet the standards and improve the food safety of their operations and to encourage them, not discourage them.
That was the gist of my question: what is the minister going to do to help rural Nova Scotia do a better job of taking care of a few turkeys here and there, deer that are shot in the province, and so on?
MR. COLWELL: That's a very good question, and one that I share your concern with greatly. Again, we don't have regulations in place that allow us to do that. We'd gladly put them in place very quickly if we could get support from your Party and the Third Party to do that, instead of getting up in the House here and talking about this issue, worrying about the small guy who is doing this and saving the whole community from this. Some of them, from what I understand, are working in a shed out behind their house. They don't check the water, they don't do anything - a really serious safety issue.
Around what we were doing about it, we've already talked about the gentleman - and I won't raise his name in this debate, because it's not up to me to do that. We've talked to him on several occasions. We've offered financial assistance to bring him up to standard and work with him closely. We can offer and we can request, but we can't make him do it. That's a business decision he has to make, and it's the same as the other ones who are out there doing this - and I can't say "illegally," but potentially not safely.
We saw someone die from a turkey at a church supper in New Brunswick, and several other people hospitalized. Yet the Opposition comes and asks us, why can't we let these little guys do whatever they want to do? You have to tell me which one you want.
Do you want food safety? Do you want these guys to be set to a standard? We'll put the standards in place right away that make them do this.
Or do you want to just let it go the way it is, and let the little guy continue processing the deer, processing the chickens and turkeys, processing beef in the same place, the white meat with the red meat - which is a no-no; you can't do that safely - and not doing the inspections on these animals to make sure they are safe for human consumption?
Which is it going to be? Support me on the fact that we'll put a program in place, which I will do immediately to bring these people up to standard who want to be up to standard? We'll put regulations in place that force that to happen, over a period of time - give people a grace period so they can decide whether they want to get involved in it or not. Or are you going to ask me a question again and say what are you doing, and on the other hand not helping us do it?
I need to know the answer to that question. Tell me you are going to help us - help us do this and make the people in the community realize that they could be killing their neighbour and not even know it, because of how they're handling this stuff. That's a fact. I mean, we've seen it in New Brunswick, and nobody believes it. What do they think happened? Somebody just made a mistake? Well, they did make a mistake. (Interruption) Somebody did make a mistake, and somebody died.
Someone could die here in Nova Scotia from this, yet we have the Opposition Party coming to us and saying, let this little guy do whatever he wants, we don't care what he does, he has done it for 35 years; he's safe. But you don't know that for a fact. All kinds of people could have gotten sick.
We need to know. If we're going to do food safety, let's do food safety. Let's get all-Party support for doing that. Let's put a program in place, which we will fund, and help these people do this and stop this backyard operation, because someone is eventually going to die from it. Eventually someone is going to die. It's just a matter of when.
Support us on that and we'll put in place right now. We'll make it happen. Maybe your honourable colleague will ask me some questions around that when it's his turn, and we can have a discussion about it, but I feel very passionate about this. I don't ever want to be faced with the fact that I didn't get support from your Party or the other Party here about food safety and I have to call somebody up and when they call me and ask, what happened to my grandmother, she's dead? Would you like to get a phone call like that? That's what happened in New Brunswick.
MR. LOHR: My colleague would like to get in on this debate. I will say that I think I heard a thin slice of what I was hoping to hear from you in the middle of your comments, that you would support and help these rural Nova Scotians to improve by introducing a program.
How you need all-Party support to do that when we've been asking for that, I think, and not to bring in more red tape and regulation - although I'm not against food safety and regulation, personally - but to provide them with the education and the resources necessary to improve, generally speaking, all of these, and in reality to react to actual incidents. In my understanding there were no actual incidents that were reacted to in the past summer. There was not actually a case. We would like the system to react to actual cases.
I'm not denying New Brunswick, and I can give you examples locally, in my area, of fire department meals gone bad too. I will say that the fire departments have gotten much, much better. Everything needs to improve, granted. But I'm just saying that rural Nova Scotia does not need more red tape. It needs to have the Department of Agriculture assist it in doing a better job.
Madam Chairman, may I turn it over to my colleague?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Certainly. The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. TIM HOUSTON: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I just wanted to follow up with my colleague's comments on the number of incidents. I wonder if the minister has any statistics on the number of situations like church dinners that have gone bad, where the actual food product has come from what we would call a large-scale facility versus coming from a small facility.
I would be very interested if the minister could elaborate specifically, after providing those statistics - which he clearly must have, given his confidence in condemning small facilities - but I would be very interested if he could elaborate on the incident in New Brunswick, which I am not familiar with, as to where that food product came from. Could he tell me exactly where the turkey that might have been served in that case was processed?
MR. COLWELL: This is a very important question, this whole matter around food safety. The difference in Nova Scotia is that if anyone voluntarily decides that they are going to put in a licensed abattoir to deal with the processing facility, we will license them and we will help them do that. We will gladly put a program in place to get people to upgrade their facilities if they want to.
Some of these facilities, people would probably decide not to. We can't make them do it until we change the regulations. We have to change the regulations to make it mandatory that this happens. Otherwise we're going to continue on and it's just going to be a matter of time before someone gets really ill or dies from this problem. I don't want to see that happen, and I know nobody in the Opposition Parties wants to see this happen either. Nobody does.
How do we do it? We'll move forward with a regulation, but I want support from the two other Parties. We will put a plan in place with that regulation to ease the people who are operating without inspection into that, and we'll finance part of that. We will put the resources in place. We will put the things we need in place to make that happen. We will send people out. Perennia works closely with different organizations around getting them up to speed on this, and we can make that all available to them. We would really like to see this problem resolved.
Hopefully, while I'm minister, nobody dies from this. I really hope, and I hope for your sake too - all of our sakes - that nobody dies because we turned a blind eye to somebody who is not operating correctly. I can give you some pretty staggering information that I really don't want to share here that you may or may not be aware of, but this issue has to be addressed.
Give me the support and I'll move forward on it. We'll work on a program to get more people in the business because it makes good sense. We've been approached by a couple of people who don't have a facility now. It's not a big investment. Some of the facilities can be set up with as little as a quarter of a million dollars. That's not a big investment when it really comes to the whole picture, if they want to do red meat or if they want to do white meat. If they're going to do both, they have to have two smaller, separate facilities, but a lot of things can be the same.
This is a serious issue for the province, but if I put the regulation in place, exactly what the honourable member said here - he'll be up on the floor saying, why are you forcing these little tiny guys to become compliant? Then there's an outcry from the 600 or 700 people on the petition I have in my office - this guy has done a great job for 30 years. The first time someone gets sick, the first time someone dies from that facility or some other facility, guess whose doorstep they'll be on? Not yours. They'll be on my doorstep - why didn't you put the food safety in place?
The people who signed that petition will all of a sudden realize that they made a major mistake by signing that petition, because they're supporting Joe down the road, not realizing it's potentially making a very dangerous situation for their family if they buy that product or have that product processed in a facility that does not have inspection.
These facilities don't even check their water to see if the water is safe. You can wash your product - you can do the product perfectly well - and if you wash it down with something that's contaminated with salmonella poisoning, you're going to get sick. They don't even check that.
So how can we stand in this Legislature and say, like the honourable member said, what's the incidence of someone getting sick from a little facility or a big facility? The problem is, we don't want anyone to get sick from food safety in this province. That's the bottom line. The bottom line is, the big guys probably have more incidents of getting sick because they're huge and they supply such a huge market. These little guys are only a small market, but they find it and they fix it. The little guy gets somebody sick, he doesn't know where to start. Where do you start to fix this thing? He's not trained to do it. He doesn't have the facility to look after it.
I'll ask you a really important question. In the fishing industry - and I hate to mix the two of them together, but this is a very good point - you're not allowed to operate a facility in Nova Scotia, period - or in the country - that isn't certified by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The bacteria in a fish plant is 10 times worse, if not 100 times worse, than a meat-processing facility. No problems getting certified. It's a process they go through. Every fish plant in this province is certified.
So why are we saying it's okay to process meat in your back shed, in your house, where someone can die from it, when the rest of the industry all around us in Nova Scotia is certified under federal programs, which are very difficult to get certified to in the fishing industry? Why is that the case? Are we going to do food safety or are we going to look after the guy down the road when maybe sometime, when someone gets really sick or dies - and it's just a matter of when. It's not "if" it's going to happen. It's a matter of when.
I'll talk to you both afterward about some other issues that you don't see, that you don't see in the non-inspected facilities that the inspected facilities check for, but this is a food safety issue for Nova Scotians. So are you going to support me on this so we can make this thing happen? I will put the system in place. I'll work with you to phase it in over time. We'll put the financial resources behind it - whatever we do to get everybody up to speed.
I would love to see every one of these little guys who are processing this stuff make a decision, if they want to process chickens and turkeys - do it three months of the year, we don't care. We will help them get up to speed, help them do the things they need to do, train them and get them in place.
The difference with your fire department is - and this is a fact - every church supper, every time you serve food in that kind of environment, you have to have a mandatory food health safety course in this province. Yet you can go buy turkeys at the local guy down the road that has no rules whatsoever, serve it at a church supper, and get everybody sick because you don't know. You're doing the food handling safety that you have and you follow all the rules, and someone will die. So tell me what you want to do.
MR. HOUSTON: First off, I would say that if the minister actually wants to consult on some regulations or some changes, we'd be more than happy to be part of the process. It's something we've seen a lot, so if we get a sincere offer on that, I would definitely take it.
Just to the point, before I pass back to my colleague - you know, if I took the minister at face value, I would be afraid to walk out of this building today. I could get hit by a car more easily than I could - the person in my constituency has been providing a service to his friends and neighbours for 30 years. The people in that community - if he was doing something wrong, if he had made someone sick, it certainly wouldn't take an inspector to close him down. The community would close him down.
I hope that maybe going forward, the situation is that there is a desire to work with these small companies, to work with these people in rural Nova Scotia who are supporting their communities. But to stand by while somebody comes in today and closes a company tomorrow that has a pretty stellar track record, and then say, well, the Opposition won't support me on regulations that you haven't put forward or asked us to support - that's pretty disingenuous. It's pretty offensive to the people of rural Nova Scotia who just want to grow turkeys and have them slaughtered, and now that has been taken away from them.
To use examples from other provinces or whatever - I'd be happy to talk to the minister offline afterward and get something more than just, well, in New Brunswick this happened, but we don't actually know what they served, we don't know where it was processed, we don't know who ate it, or what they got sick from, but we're really scared of it. That's a little hard to take over on this side of the House.
With that, I just wanted to stress the seriousness of this issue. It's very serious for rural Nova Scotia, and we're looking for ways to support rural Nova Scotia and grow rural economies. To just ride in from Halifax and put a closed sign on a door of a company that's been in operation for so long - apologies, but I find that extremely unfair, especially under the circumstances there. We all have things we're concerned about, and life is about concern. It's great to have concerns; it's not rational to overreact in that way.
I'll pass it over with those few words, Madam Chairman, to my colleague, the member for Kings North.
MR. COLWELL: I can assure the member that we will be talking to you and your caucus about regulations to change this immediately. In the meantime, I would appreciate a sworn affidavit from you that if anyone gets sick from this gentleman who you've got so much confidence in, you will take personal financial responsibly and moral responsibility for something that was produced in his facility. If you've got that much faith in that, I would appreciate receiving that today, and if you're willing to do that we may change how we do business. But I doubt you'll supply that to me. I highly doubt it, because you don't have that much confidence in this.
If you provide it, I'm offering here, we will work with this whole Legislature. This is something that needs all-Party support and we need to work on it together and growing the Nova Scotia economy. The people who get registered to do these programs and under the proper inspection programs are busy, because most people want to take them there and get them produced so they know their family is safe. They'll still have the option, regardless of what we do, to grow your own turkeys or chickens that you want to, process it at your home, and provide it to your own family - that you only put your own family at risk. You're going to be pretty cautious so you don't put your own family at risk.
If you really want to talk about that, if you're going to do economic development through this kind of thing, the proper way to do it is with proper standards. I'm against red tape. This isn't red tape. This is food safety standards. We're going to talk about food safety standards. I'll be expecting your affidavit this afternoon. I'll be very surprised if I ever see it. That will tell me that you have no confidence in this gentleman. (Interruption) If that's what you want to do, that's fine.
In the meantime, the processing facilities in this province that are following the rules are inspected on a regular basis by a very capable inspection group we have here in the province. We'll continue that with the new process. I have more confidence in them and those facilities than I have in somebody who doesn't check their water, who doesn't check the product they're doing. They're doing two different products in their facility, which would be cross-contamination, causing very serious health issues. We really have to look after those things.
I look forward to doing that. I will consult with the regulations. We will put something in place that makes sense. I'm anxious to do that today. This is a time bomb - it's just a matter of when and how bad it will be when it comes, and I'm willing to do any of those things. Just talk to us about it. I'll gladly talk to you about it, and we'll sit down and have a discussion almost immediately.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings North.
MR. JOHN LOHR: With all due respect, you're in a majority government - you simply need the support of your colleagues. So the question is, when will you be bringing in the plan?
MR. COLWELL: Are you saying that you don't want to participate in food safety for the Province of Nova Scotia? That your Party is not interested in that? Is that what you're telling me? I offered to come out and do this - you to participate, which normally doesn't happen with a majority government. That doesn't happen, but it's going to happen in this case - to set these rules down in place so we look after the safety of Nova Scotians. If you want to do that, we'll move immediately on it.
MR. LOHR: Let me leave that. I want to drill into another topic in my last eight minutes, if that's okay with you - to say that we will leave that. I know everybody likes to get the last word. We await your plan.
There are a number of issues I would like to ask you about. I'm very concerned about the dikes. I know that my colleague, the member for Queens-Shelburne, brought up that issue.
Earlier in the House I brought up the issue of interprovincial trade and my colleagues in the fruit and vegetable industry in the Annapolis Valley struggling with very low prices in our season. During our season, for instance, my neighbour Art Woolaver, growing cabbage and most every year, there would be a period of time when cabbage is $3 a bag, delivered in out of Quebec and Ontario - the long-held belief of those gentlemen is that part of the reason Ontario and Quebec are able to do that is because of enhanced farm subsidies.
I know I raised the issue in the House. Unfortunately, in the House there isn't really much time to drill down into that, for you to give a more lengthy explanation. I would just like you to now tell us what you've done on that subject, and maybe what you're planning to do.
MR. COLWELL: Well, this is a very important topic - not just in cabbage, but across all the commodities we have. It's important. We've started working with Perennia and with the farmers you've identified to see if we can get enhancement in the growth of the product. Some of the provinces are using the Growing Forward 2 money to subsidize their industry. That is not the way to go.
We've already seen, as I talked about earlier, the blueberry yield being 15 times what it was even two years ago. That was based on science. We need to apply that kind of science in our industry here. We've got to get them more competitive so they can not only grow more competitively here and displace those cheap imports that are coming but also move them outside the province, because we're competitive.
I gave you the example already with kale - four times the production in Nova Scotia that they get in the Carolinas, which is unheard of. That's because we have very intelligent farmers who are doing a great job in doing different types of applications of technology that hadn't been done before. So we're working with the people you're talking about to see if we can get technology put in place to get their productivity up and make them even more productive than they are now.
If that doesn't make sense, maybe we could look at different crops at different times of the year - with their cabbage, if they want to continue to grow cabbage, whatever the business decision they make, and help them become profitable in other areas as well.
We have already started working with them. We want to help make them profitable. They have to make the decision, and they are working with us, which we're very, very pleased about. We will continue to do that to get a long-term resolution to this problem.
MR. LOHR: Mr. Minister, I know your department has looked into this. Can you confirm that there are enhanced farm subsidies in Quebec and Ontario that make those farmers more competitive?
MR. COLWELL: I believe there are. That's what I've been told by some of our staff, but I'll have to double-check that. What I'll do - because this is a very important topic. This is not the way to grow agriculture and make the industry profitable, no matter who does it. I will get you that detailed information of exactly what it is, and maybe we can work together with your federal colleagues - the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, who I work with greatly and I truly respect and who has been a big supporter of Nova Scotia. Maybe we can work together and see if we can't get a system in place so that our farmers don't have to deal with that kind of thing. I'll get you detailed information on it as quickly as I can.
MR. LOHR: I may be incorrect in saying this, but I believe that in the past there have been statements made that there would not be these distortions to interprovincial trade, and that there are agreements between provinces that they would not have programs that distort trade in this way. It's a very serious impact on our industry, because Quebec and Ontario come on at exactly the same time with product as we do. It's not like you're talking about California and Florida - some of those areas are out of sync with our season. Quebec and Ontario are exactly in sync with our season and exactly when we have product, they have product.
We are a very small marketplace, Mr. Minister, and I know you mentioned yield - on the one hand you mentioned that maybe we're not as good, and then on the other hand you mentioned that maybe we're a lot better. I don't believe it is simply yield. I think that there are things like that happening, and I think that it's an issue that we, as a province, need to take to the federal government - I agree - and to try to deal with to create a more level playing field for our farmers.
One of things that has happened is that Quebec and Ontario have gotten closer to us. You might not think that's true, but as the roads have gotten better through New Brunswick, what was once a 24-hour trip became an 18-hour trip became a 16-hour trip on better roads. In fact, they're really not that far away. These things matter, and even small differences make a big difference in the strength and viability of an industry.
I know we are both on the same side in wanting to see agriculture grow. I'm willing to do whatever I can on the federal level to try to change that, to help you. I appreciate you saying . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has elapsed for the Progressive Conservative Party. We'll now move on to the NDP.
The honourable member for Sackville-Cobequid.
HON. DAVID WILSON: Thank you to the minister and to his staff. I'm just wondering, does the minister need a break for a minute?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: No.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I do want to have a few questions with you. I know I'm not the Critic for Agriculture, and coming from the suburbs you wouldn't expect me to stand up and talk about agriculture. But being an elected official for 12 years and being in the different roles that I've had over those years, I've had a lot of interactions in our rural communities around agriculture and the importance of it to our province. As a caucus, we meet on a regular basis with those within the industry, and they continue to bring issues forward throughout the positions I've been in in this Chamber.
What stands out to me right away is that I was hoping to hear from the minister - and maybe you could elaborate on this - your opening statement was a bit brief. You stood up for about three or four minutes, and I was hoping to get a little bit more insight on some of the things that you think we'll see grow here in Nova Scotia over the next little while, especially over the next year, and possibly some of the issues that we've had over the last year. I will bring a few of those up.
Over the last little while, top of mind within our caucus is around the greenhouses that we have in the province and the fact that, with the heavy snowfall we've received over the last number of months, many of them have collapsed. There has been quite a bit of damage. It's my understanding that there is no program currently in government that would assist these individuals. Maybe the minister could explain if there are options for them.
It's my understanding that many of them don't have the opportunity to have insurance, and didn't have insurance. Is there some other way that the government can support them and assist them and hopefully improve their chances of getting back into the business this summer with such destruction around? So maybe a brief comment on that issue that is really top of mind for many who work in and have the greenhouses here in Nova Scotia.
MR. COLWELL: We've talked about this quite a bit already, as you are aware. We are very concerned about this as well. The fact is that there's a possibility of them getting insurance for greenhouse collapse for snow damage and wind damage and all kinds of things. The problem with that is, from what I hear from the industry - I have no idea what the actual dollar numbers are, but the industry told us when I met with them that the insurance is so expensive that it really makes it almost impossible for them to make money.
A greenhouse operation, unless you can get the exact right product - it's like anything in farming - farmer John, he's been very successful - it's very small margins when you do it, and we need the greenhouses in the province. We have initiated everything we can possibly do, as we already talked about, to assist the greenhouses.
Some of the roadblocks we're running into are because they didn't have insurance, and under the federal programs - not our programs, but the federal programs say that if you could get insurance and you didn't have it, you don't qualify for a federal program. That's one of the major issues we're running into.
We have to look at different ways of making sure that not only can we work with these facilities now to get them in production this summer sometime, so they can produce products for the Fall season, but that this doesn't happen again. I already talked about some engineering we can offer to help them under programs we have to make sure these structures will last if we get this kind of environment again. I don't know exactly what that would amount to, but I can envision evaluating the structures, seeing what each structure is and what the risk is of that collapsing under different loads, seeing if that can help them, and then seeing if it's cost effective to make corrections in that structure that could alleviate this problem down the road.
We have a short-term problem and we have a long-term problem, and we're willing to work on the long-term problem as well as the short-term one. We already have resources. We're waiting for the weather to clear up and the snow to go. We can't get a full evaluation on what all the damages are until the snow and ice disappear. When that snow and ice disappear, we'll get a better understanding of what the costs are. That could take several weeks, and then it will take some time for each operator to look and see what pumps are damaged, what furnaces are damaged, what tables are damaged, what inventory was lost that might have been in that particular greenhouse - and I'm talking maybe some raw materials like bagged soil or fertilizers that might have gotten damaged and destroyed, to the plots that they might have already had in place ready to plant, or that they had some planted in.
It's very complex, and it does take quite a while. I know that typically a lot of these things seem to be short term, but they're not. We're looking at AgriInvest and AgriStability. We're looking at that. We're going to put information sessions in place where we can go talk to the industry and see what programs they might fit into - if there are any, federally or provincially - and we also fund business risk management production insurance programs on a 60-40 basis. They have to sign up for the programs, and from what I understand, they weren't signed up with them.
So there are all kinds of extenuating circumstances here. A lot of risk was taken by some of the greenhouses, and I can understand why they did that. If it's going to affect their bottom line - and for decades they've had no problem with this kind of weather. This is extremely unusual weather, and this weather caused this very serious problem.
At the end of the day, we're not sure what we're going to be able to do to help. We can guarantee we're going to do everything we possibly can to make the situation the best we can for them and work closely with them. I can tell you, after working with them - we really want to work with people. We had a very good meeting. We met with them. We were very honest and they were very honest about where they were.
I'm concerned about the industry in Nova Scotia. We can't afford to lose it, but at the same time, we already invest millions of dollars in production insurance and we will continue to do so. We have to talk to them about the short-term and the long-term benefit of some of the things that we can offer to do. The long-term stuff is pretty straightforward. For the short-term stuff we really have to do a complete evaluation, which is started, but we can't finish it until the snow and ice are gone.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you, minister, and I thank you for that answer. I would agree that when we're talking about insurance, often there are barriers there for businesses. When you're talking about these types of businesses, I know there's a very small margin for profit. I think they do gamble on that, and they gamble on the weather, and often when you're growing crops.
I know it's not through your department, but I would hope that you would advocate for this - we've seen other areas, for example, when there are floods, that are dealing with damage that is not covered by insurance. Some people don't have flood insurance, for example, and I know in recent months the government has put a program together to assist those who have had some flood damage. I think it was just prior to Christmas in December - through Service Nova Scotia, I believe, or maybe EMO.
I'm just wondering if that would be a possibility for this one-time incident, or this season, and hopefully work, as you said, with the industry to see what we can do to maybe cost share. I'm not too familiar with that 60-40 - I think you called it some type of insurance coverage. Similar to what we see in Health and Wellness, another hat that I wear, the top-of-mind issue now is malpractice insurance for obstetricians, for example. Their insurance is going from $21,000 to $55,000, and I think up to now the government supported them in the range of 90 per cent of that cost. We may have a program about 60-40 - I think from your comments, many of the individuals and organizations and companies that were affected by the collapse of the greenhouses were not part of that, and understandably - even at 40 per cent, it might be too costly.
I was wondering if the minister could comment on if he's open to potentially looking at a one-time assistance program like we saw in the floods late last year - I believe it was in December. Is that something that you might inquire about and look at to see if that could help get these - you indicated that there's a lot of work to be done, but the fear is with the amount of snow we have now, and crops and the time they need to grow - I'm sure they should be planting now, from my understanding.
Is that something that you might entertain to get them through this year, and then have a broader look at how you support them as they go forward to make sure that this type of collapse of greenhouses due to snow accumulation, in the future, maybe they'll be a little bit more prepared on the insurance side?
MR. COLWELL: You asked a lot of questions, and I appreciate them. That's no problem. Hopefully I don't forget any. If I do, just remind me and I'll respond.
On the insurance, the insurance that we administer through the province is cost-shared: 60 per cent federal funding and 40 per cent provincial funding. Then the insurance is issued on a risk basis to the industries. We're expanding this all the time in more and more industries, in farming, so it keeps the cost down to a reasonable amount so that people can afford to buy it. The apple orchards are one key indicator. They've seen the wisdom of getting insurance. We've worked with them, and that will help them as they face any challenges - and many other industries in the province.
Immediately upon being contacted by the greenhouse association, we had to have an official contact. Once we had that, we checked with EMO. They administer this program you're talking about, this flood program. Unfortunately, under the program, if they could buy insurance and didn't, they can't get assistance.
We're not giving up on that. We're going back to it. We're going to assess the damage and see if any part of that damage can be fit in under these programs. They're aware of it. We officially let them know of it, and we're dedicated to working with them. They're a great group of people, and they're very professional at what they do.
I was very impressed with their approach when we met with them and talked with them. They were shocked that this happened, quite frankly - a lot of very capable businesspeople, and we want to work with them. Our problem is that we're very limited in what we can do. I wish it was a simple matter of just filling a claim out and fixing it for them so that as soon as the weather gets good they could get some kind of a season out of this. They already have some plans in place for how they're going to recover from this, but we really need to look at the engineering of these structures and review them and see what they have. We will do that at no cost to them.
We'll go in and say, here's what you have to do. Maybe after we do that, maybe in some of the federal-provincial programs we have, we can help them upgrade those facilities so the risk of this happening again will be eliminated or lowered to a level that doesn't affect anything.
We're looking at all these things simultaneously, because the bottom line with this is that we want them to survive this terrible tragedy they've gone through. Luckily nobody was hurt - they were inside some of these greenhouses, working at clearing them, and they could have collapsed on them. Nobody got hurt, so that's very positive, but we're going to look at all different avenues for the short-term and well into the future. In 10 years' time, it would be nice for someone to come back and say, this Legislature was supportive and the concerns that we and the Opposition have put a program in place that meant we don't have any more problems with these greenhouses for well into the future, and set a new standard that the greenhouse operators work on themselves and co-operatively work with us on.
That's what I would love to see. If we ever have this kind of weather again - hopefully we don't - we're prepared for it and we don't have to work. I can tell you that the greenhouse operators did a tremendous amount of work clearing off what they could get off them. They slit the plastic and opened up a section of greenhouse so the snow could fall in - all kinds of things they have done ever since they've started using the greenhouses. Unfortunately, the load was so heavy that it didn't even fix it. In some cases, they cut the plastic and then the ice just stayed there. It didn't even fall in.
It was a major problem, and if they tried to break it down from the inside, it could fall on them in big chunks of ice. They've done everything they possibly can to prevent this happening, and unfortunately, the weather was so bad that they lost the battle.
MR. DAVID WILSON: Thank you for that, minister. I hope that there will be some resolve as we move forward. I do feel you're quite genuine in your concern over the issue.
I think it's important to recognize this industry. I know in recent years there has been investment by the government, through NSBI and others, in some of the greenhouses to grow the sector here in Nova Scotia. I think we need to continue to do that, and hopefully they will have the support of the department.
The other area I want to touch upon is that there are some changes happening within your department. I'm referring to the inspectors being moved out. I'm not exactly 100 per cent sure of the makeup of where they're going, but I know that inspectors from different departments, from public health, are all going to be congregated into one area. Was this a recommendation from your staff, from your deputy, from the department that that should happen? Or was that a decision that was made in - I'll say the Premier's Office, but made outside your department, and then you were advised that, listen, we're going to consolidate the inspectors and put them all together in one?
Was it something that originated from your department? Were there a request and a proposal that were brought to you that you supported, and then you moved that on? Or was it external, and you were advised that this is something we're going to look at as a government, to change the roles of where the inspectors are located within government departments?
MR. COLWELL: As far as I know - and I believe this information is correct, because again, this is something that is fluid and it won't be in place until July 1st - the inspectors are going to go to the Department of Environment from all those departments you had under one group that will do all of the inspections and enforcement.
We had been looking at that in one section of our department - so the areas I look after - to remove the enforcement part, because we're really at an internal conflict. We had one case, an animal protection case on a farm, which was appealed in court, and we lost the case. So we've been looking at this for some time ourselves. I can't speak for the other departments.
We're the regulators, we're the promoters, we help with the science, everything else around all the work we do in Agriculture. As far as we're concerned, it was a conflict for us, but at the same time we had incredible staff doing an incredible job. That made it easy to deal with the conflict. They never, ever, at any time, let their responsibilities slip and slide over into making any kinds of exceptions because the department did the other responsibilities. I want to give them tremendous credit. They're great people in the department, and wherever they go, they're going to make a very positive impact.
As we see the restructuring of government, it does make sense to have in one place - I think there are going to be some economies, instead of having four people go out and do an inspection, they'll maybe have two people go. It means less business interruption for people when they're running their business, more clarity around the decisions that are coming, and being able to talk to the people so that you can get a problem solved instead of getting a fine for something that maybe you didn't realize you're not doing right, or perceive to be doing right.
The answer is that it was a conflict for us in our department. I can't speak for the other departments. Particularly in the business we're in, we're growing the economy and we have to make sure that we have a clear separation between how we operate and how that's enforced. It's going to be good for us to have someone else enforce it. If we're doing something wrong, we want to know, and we'll correct it.
MR. DAVID WILSON: I can understand the rationale for your department on the enforcement side and the regulatory side. I am concerned, though, with all the inspectors going to one, and of course in the other areas - hopefully I'll get some answers from the other ministers who will be affected by this, especially in public health. I just see the potential of losing connection with what's going on within the department and that field of expertise, I would say, that an inspector would have.
What I envision - which I hope doesn't happen - would be a day in the life of an inspector down the road. You mentioned we had four or six - it might be two. I would hope that we wouldn't see - I think that in each area their roles are much different, but they're extremely important. What I don't want to see is in the morning you're inspecting culverts, in the afternoon you're inspecting meat processing, and in the evening you're inspecting a mumps outbreak. That's what I'm concerned about. I'm not trying to make light of it, but in each area they're important to that industry, and the effect that that may have.
That's where my concern is. I do understand yours a little more, where you are the regulator. I guess I'll have to hit each department up as we go through estimates, if we get to them all, and try to come up with an answer. I guess Environment hopefully - I know you're saying it may not happen until July - may have more answers, because I think this should've been looked at in the preparation of doing this.
I've been very critical of your government when you make changes, especially around models and delivery of services, that it hasn't been thought out fully. I'm not blaming your department. I might blame the Health and Wellness Department a little bit more - and not the department itself but the government, for making the department put the policy forward. I hope you recognize my concern, and I will look at that in each department.
Right now, my concern is what I perceive - especially over the last number of years - as an erosion of your department, seeing services leave your department to go elsewhere in a sector that I think is extremely important to our economy and to who we are as Nova Scotians. The Agriculture component of services have been here for generations and generations. I'm concerned that your department is a target, maybe, or it seems to be easy pickings the last couple of years, to take stuff away from it.
Are you concerned with that perception that I have? I want to see Agriculture and the sector strengthen and grow over the years ahead. I think some feel that certain industries are sunset industries, like farming and logging and those industries that have really created our province. Maybe a few comments? I would like to know what your thoughts are on the perception I have, that I think there has been an erosion of Agriculture, and it seems to be getting smaller and smaller as we go forward here. I'm just wondering if you have a comment on that.
MR. COLWELL: Thank you very much. I listened very intently to your concern about food inspectors inspecting culverts. I can assure you the food inspectors are highly-trained, highly-educated professionals. I can't imagine any department taking those professionals and getting them to inspect culverts, quite frankly.
AN HON. MEMBER: Culverts are important too.
MR. COLWELL: They are important, but probably there's somebody else qualified in culverts.
I have total confidence in the staff that we're transferring. I think it's positive for our department from the standpoint that we can now concentrate on the things that we have to concentrate on.
When I talk to staff in the department, 2000 was a really bad year for the department. When the Progressive Conservative Government was in power they just devastated the department. They took out all kinds of - they stopped visiting farms, and did a lot of things. The staff weathered that change, and it was really difficult. At least this time our staff are going to a place where they're all going to keep their jobs and where they are, and they're going to be doing the exact same job that they were doing.
I can tell you, the Department of Environment is going to be very pleased with the quality of people that they are getting from our department. Very, very pleased. We hate to see them go, but things change. On the matter of the department shrinking, if you carefully look at the budget again, one of the key economic growth opportunities we perceive is in agriculture in the Province of Nova Scotia. We totally agree with that. We're taking steps to ensure that does happen.
I formulated the Nova Scotia Wine Development Board to discuss the opportunities we have. The industry is extremely excited. That's an industry that can grow exponentially. We have the perfect growing conditions. We have an industry that is ready to grow. We have the land - the best soil conditions and the best weather conditions in the world today in Nova Scotia. That's one industry we're working very closely with, and we'll be making some announcements around that in the next few months.
The important part of it is that we're working directly with the industry. We're listening to them, working with them, and enabling them. We're not telling them what to do. We're enabling them and we're very carefully listening to them.
I'll give you one example of co-operation that we've had with this wine board we have. One of the members of the wine board was very upset. He called me one day and he said, I can't get a sign on the 100-Series Highway. Tourism was involved in it, TIR was involved in it; everybody was involved in this sign. He said, I can't get a sign up to promote my winery on the 100-Series Highway. This is in the Valley. I have to wait two years to get a sign up, and it will cost a fortune to do it.
So I invited the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to come to the meeting, with the deputy minister, and we already have somebody on there from Tourism. We made an arrangement at that meeting to change that policy so we could get the sign up at a reasonable price and get it done almost immediately. That's the kind of co-operation we're getting from other departments. What happened with that sign going up? The sales in that winery went up 30 per cent - 30 per cent with one sign on the road.
If we can concentrate on doing more of these things instead of the inspections and enforcement issues, we can grow the economy quite rapidly. There will be some challenges as we do this, but that particular individual had no intentions of expanding his winery and his vineyard. A vineyard is the key to growing the industry. I talked to him after he realized the increase. He makes very high-quality wine, and once people get to try it they'll buy it and they'll buy it again. He's putting another nine acres of grape plants in the ground and increasing production by almost 50 per cent, because of a sign on the road.
Think about that. It didn't cost the province anything. It cost the gentleman a reasonable amount, but 30 per cent added sales to your existing operation - overhead hasn't changed - so all of a sudden a winery - and I don't know what his gross profit margin was, and that's totally his business. But regardless of where it was, common sense would tell you that a 30 per cent increase in volume of sales, dollar value, means - his cost was all the same across the board, so his gross profit margin would have improved substantially, moving toward being more profitable, being able to reinvest in his business. I want to commend the industry for the work they've done in the past and will continue to do in the future.
We have many examples like that. The apple industry is another one, with the Honeycrisp apple and the Sweet Tango and the other ones that they've developed. In the department we're poised to really move industry forward. It's great because it's in rural Nova Scotia, where we need the jobs. These jobs in a lot of these places have now become high-tech jobs. They've become more and more automated. Instead of someone working for minimum wage, you need highly-skilled, highly-trained people to do these jobs. The more sophisticated we get, the less labour we need, the more consistent we are with costs, so we can then turn around and have these industries make money. That is the key.
Everybody talks about jobs. Jobs are only created if a company makes money, they reinvest, and they grow. We have to start talking about making money for the industries in our province. When they make money they pay more corporate taxes, they pay more income taxes - that all helps the province. It helps keep young people in the province.
I believe we're on the right track. In some cases we're going to have a bumpy road ahead of us, because we're going to do some new technology. We're going to move into quality assurance programs that the industry is not used to. We're excited about that, and it will make a difference as we move forward and grow the economy in the province.
I hope I've answered most of your questions. If I've missed anything, please ask me again.
MR. DAVID WILSON: He said it nicely. Thank you, minister, I appreciate that answer, and I would agree. I recognize your support for the industry, and I think the areas you've mentioned around the apple-growing industry and the wine industry have definitely taken off over the last number of years. I believe they will continue to grow.
That's why a little advice to the minister: when change management and treasury and whoever else come knocking on the door of Agriculture, just tell them to go away. The industry is promising and you need to continue to work and your department needs to continue to work to support them. I'll support you on that. You just let me know, and I'll send off a letter to whoever comes to try to downsize the Department of Agriculture any more.
I am going to share my time with my colleague, the member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, but my last question is a concern. I've heard people talking about the amount of snow that we still have on the ground. Are the department and the industry concerned about getting crops in late? How much of an impact will that have on the growing season this year? Or am I just someone from the suburb who shouldn't worry about that, and they'll get things in the ground quickly enough? I think it is a legitimate concern. Are you hearing from anybody, or is the department concerned on maybe a late growing season here that might impact growth in sales in agriculture?
MR. COLWELL: We're very concerned about this season. I'll give you one example. In some areas the maple syrup business is faced with seven feet of snow in the woods. Now is the time of year they have to tap the trees. Their taps are usually four feet high to allow for the three feet of snow that's normally in the woods, so they've got to raise their taps and run new lines. It's a big, complicated, very expensive process.
How bad this is going to be depends on when the weather breaks and how quickly the snow melts in different areas of the province, or how it's going to delay the planting. The planting a few weeks in Nova Scotia - if it's off by a few weeks it can cause some substantial problems, especially if we end up with early frost in the Fall of the year.
So we're concerned about it. The industry is concerned about it. We're in very close contact with the Federation of Agriculture. We have an excellent working relationship with them, which hasn't always been the case in the past between government and the federation. We value the work they do. We really value their input and their ideas. Just recently we met with them and they suggested a new program they wanted to put in place. We agreed with it and we're going to move forward with it. We will be announcing that as soon as we can get the clearance from the federal government under our Growing Forward 2 program. I believe it will really help us grow the industry and work.
A lot of times, as well as the industries themselves - for instance, in the wine industry, we also have to take an inventory of all the assets and laboratories we have in the province - all the universities and community colleges and the government ones - to see what additional assets we may have to put in place in Nova Scotia to service the wine industry, so that when they start growing - which we know they are - we have all the test facilities.
So it's a very complicated process, and we're working on that process. With fewer staff - our department has stayed pretty flat as far as our staff are concerned. We haven't gone up or down very much, but we've got some very professional staff who I'm delighted to work with. They work hard every day. I've been challenging them to come with new ideas, and the ideas are coming. They're sitting there - so many years they've not been allowed to bring their ideas forward, and that's a new approach we've taken in the department. I want them to challenge me every day to come up with ideas and approaches we can take with things that will make the industry better, make it safer, and make it more productive, whatever the case may be.
I can tell you, when I talk to the staff, they have some brilliant ideas. Every time we can, we're implementing those ideas, and it is starting to make a difference in the industry. We see a new excitement both in the industry and in our department with that. I'll be glad when this transfer is completed so that everybody can be assured that they are going to be doing the job they were doing in the past. We look forward to that being finished, and then we'll concentrate on growing the economy in our department.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook- Salmon River.
MS. LENORE ZANN: Thank you, Madam Chairman, and hello over there, my old friend, Minister of Agriculture. It's great to finally get a chance to speak to you. I had to go over to the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage - I can't be in two places at the same time yet. Haven't figured that one out. I'll bet you've had a lot of chances where you've had to do the same thing in your, what, 20 years of being an MLA?
Anyway, first of all, I want to say that I'm glad to see there doesn't seem to be a cut to your budget. There seems to be a small increase in the Department of Agriculture budget this year, although it seems to be mixed in with Fisheries and Aquaculture too. Did you get any cuts to your budget this year? No.
One of the first things - I'm sure you've already mentioned this to my former colleagues - I seem to hear him mentioning the flood mitigation. Could you give me a brief update on what's happening with the flood mitigation and monies available for that, especially in and around the Colchester-Truro area, where we've had all those problems and where money was put into that and put aside for that? Could you update me on that, please?
MR. COLWELL: As far as I'm aware, all the work that the Department of Agriculture could do in the Truro area has been done. I double-check that every time there is a rainstorm and a chance of a high tide. My staff indicate that's the case. I understand there's some work that the town hasn't done yet. I don't think it's major work that they have to do, and they're probably trying to budget that to help the situation more.
I want to credit the past government - which I don't do very often, as you can tell, but I think they handled that case very well. They did put the mitigation in place and it did help the Truro area, because that has been a long-standing problem. I'm glad I didn't inherit it, let's put it that way. I know that you have personally been flooded when these floods come, as many of the people in the area are, and you're very concerned about this. All I can say is, as far as we know, we've done all the mitigation that we can to resolve it. We have been told that the town needs to do a few more things in order to get this resolved.
As far as the rest of the province goes, we're doing $2 million a year in the capital campaign to raise the level of the dikes and maintain them, plus we're putting $5 million into LaPlanche Aboiteau up in the Tantramar Marsh area. That's a project that we've moved ahead with, and we're putting $1.5 million into operating LaPlanche as well on a regular basis. That's going to be quite a significant improvement in that location.
We're looking at improvements all over. I indicated earlier that we have about 234 kilometres of dikes in the province, as you're well aware, and a lot of aboiteaux, which are - if anyone is watching and doesn't know what they are - the little drain gates that let the water get out during the low-tide period and stop the saltwater coming back into the marshland, to protect the marshland from the salt in the area. Some of these have been in place for 400 years - some of the aboiteaux have been in place for 400 years. So it gives you the idea: the Acadians did a terrific engineering job, probably not even realizing what they were doing or how well it would last. It would be nice if we could tell somebody what a great job they did 400 years ago.
I indicated this earlier, but I realize you were over in the other estimates - our staff will make a regular trip to the junkyard looking for scrap metal that we can make aboiteau gates out of, which will cut the cost. They're very successful at it, and they cut the cost substantially over the commercially available ones, and those probably last longer because they understand - they see the failed ones, and see where to reinforce them. I really want to give them a great round of support for the work they're doing around those. They're very capable people. They're well trained, as all our staff are, but they really go the extra mile.
I've seen the engineer responsible for it in my office every now and then in a panic to get a signature on a purchase because he can save $20,000 or $30,000, if they can buy fill at this location and move forward on this, than if he waits and has to buy it later. That's the kind of staff I want to see in my office. Every time we can save that, that means we can take that $20,000 or $30,000 - and in some cases a lot more than that - and repair something somewhere else.
They're very vigilant and doing a great job. If you have any concerns about the one in your area or these ones, if you bring them to me, we will gladly look at them.
MS. ZANN: Yes, I know a lot of the staff there, of course. I went to school with a lot of them - Alan Grant was in your department; I think he just now moved to a different department - but I know they were very diligent about those dikes. I was quite impressed with how they kept them up after all these years.
I am wondering about one particular dike, which is the one in Shubenacadie by the river which had been damaged by Alton Gas. I was wondering, have they fixed that up yet? I know at the time they did it without your permission and without getting the proper permits, and you had said to them that they needed to fix the dike and that they were going to have to pay for the damages themselves. Could you please give me an update on that issue?
MR. COLWELL: As far as I know the dike has been fixed, because it hasn't come across my desk again. We did issue an order for them to fix it; they prematurely got in and dug at the dike, which they were not supposed to do, so I assume it has been done.
I can give you an update. We can do some research on it and see where it's at, but I'm sure it has been fixed. Otherwise it would have been on my desk weeks and weeks ago and we would have been taking some action, some real solid action, to get that fixed.
That was really an inappropriate action they did. Some people got a little bit overzealous and didn't realize what they were dealing with when they were tearing the dike apart and digging it up.
MS. ZANN: Actually, if possible, when you've got time I would like to see if your staff could provide - have they checked on it? Have they done the proper inspection to make sure it was fixed properly? At this point I don't know if the company themselves fixed it or if your staff ended up fixing it. Did the company pay for the damages that were done? Do you have any more information on that part of it?
MR. COLWELL: I guarantee we didn't pay for it. The company did something that they weren't allowed to do. They had no permit to do it. We took the appropriate action at the time.
What we can do is get the detailed information around that. I would assume that with the professionalism we have in our department it was fixed properly and they would have been supervising the repair work, but I will get you detailed information on that.
MS. ZANN: Thank you so much. I'd really appreciate that. Also, I know that you have had a few different staffing changes. Have you actually lost any staff members - any eliminated, any not replaced due to retirements, this kind of thing - and if so, how many?
MR. COLWELL: It's quite an interesting number we have here that I'm going to talk to you about. Through the two people that would retire or decide they wanted to get a job someplace else - every two that we had go, we could only replace with one. We had four people go, which was natural attrition. We have one opening that's left now, and we moved one in from ERDT. Basically our staffing complement is unchanged. Both the size of the department and the number of employees we have are basically unchanged.
MS. ZANN: Did you say you moved one in from ERDT after they dissolved the department, or before they did that? Could you provide that name?
MR. COLWELL: I really shouldn't provide the name of the individual, but the individual was brought in several months ago and does a marketing role, which we've been extremely happy about. If we're going to grow the economy we need to be able to do the production work and the marketing that goes with it, and we've been really excited and happy about that individual joining our organization.
If you want to talk to me afterward I can give you the name, but not in this setting, because it's a human resources issue. We're excited about that. We've got a great individual, and he's probably very happy today that he came with us six months ago - I'm sure he is, but I hope he's happy anyway. I've already seen some major results that this individual has done, and we're going to be hard pressed to get individuals who can out-perform what this particular person did.
We actually brought another one from ERDT into the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department about six or eight months ago. We're very happy with both employees and we look forward to a long working relationship with both of them.
MS. ZANN: Thank you. It wasn't supposed to be a trick question or trying to get anybody in trouble or anything like that. I'm just curious. I do care about this department. Obviously being in Truro-Bible Hill and with the Agricultural College, which is now Dalhousie University, there at the Agricultural campus, the people that work in your department and I actually see each other a lot, and I wanted to know who the new person was.
That said, talking about staffing and changes, let's move on to the Nova Scotia Exhibition Commission and the raceway and the harness racing industry. Could you please give me an update? I know you have the new manager there now. I believe you'd given him and the new board that you put in place a year to make changes and turn the place around. Could you give me an update on that, let me know how that's going at this point? And when is the year up for those people to have proved their worth to you?
MR. COLWELL: We're very happy with the transformation that's going on there. It's a difficult thing to go into a community that has had a long history of operating an operation that's used to getting a government cheque when things go bad. There are no more government cheques. We're happy with what's happening, and we're happy with the interim board.
We hope to have legislation in, maybe this Spring, but this Fall for sure, to set a new board structure and new accountability levels in place. There are a lot of things, as you would well know in your area - you're very familiar with this, and it's a very important capital asset for the province and very important for the community. It creates a lot of excitement because a lot of people come into the community and spend money in there from outside. It has a huge impact on the economy.
We're committed, as we've said before, to keeping that open, but we have to make it profitable. I told them that if they make any money, we're not going to take the money away. We want them to take that money and reinvest it in the facility to make sure that they can upgrade it, so we can make more money with it and invest more. We've actually had some private investors who are very interested in the event and investing a substantial amount of money into the facility. Once we're ready for that - we're almost ready for that now - we're very excited about that. That shows that there's a lot of commitment from the community, which we want.
I don't get involved in the day-to-day operation of the facility at all. That's the board's responsibility and the manager's responsibility, but they have to be totally accountable.
When we bring the new Act in, there's going to be a requirement there that they have to present this Legislature with a yearly financial statement, a business plan, and a report of what they received in the previous year.
One other thing - and I don't really want to talk on the Act a lot - we're going to give the Auditor General the authority to do an audit there any time he wants, and a whole lot more accountability than that.
It's a long process with a place that had been really run down over the years, as you know. The money that was made wasn't reinvested in the facility as it should have been, but that's a business decision they made in the past, and that's in the past and that's fine. We want to see it grow. There's tremendous potential there in the 65 acres, as you know, and some really good buildings that need some freshening up, and in some cases need some major stuff.
One thing that we're going to put in place there - I've been talking to the agriculture industry about doing a cost-control system, a computerized one. The exhibition is going to be my test case. That's going to give them live tools, so if you're talking about one of the buildings there, what it's costing to heat the building, not only will it be able to tell them what it cost that day but it will tell them what it costs at that moment, live. They'll know exactly what's going on.
That program is started. I've already talked to them about it, and they're very excited about it. We don't have any equipment there yet, but that's very near. We'll be able to take in every building. We'll know exactly what it was. We'll know exactly what every employee has done every day, what the productivity is, all kinds of information for a management tool that will set them apart from anywhere else in the province. We're going to use that as a prototype, so it won't cost them any money.
I need that tool for the farming industry. Then we can apply it on a farm that we don't have control over, and they can implement these things. I guarantee you from personal experience that this will make the exhibition money, it will make the farming industry - it's going to revolutionize the farming industry in Nova Scotia if we can get this in place. We've got some very excited local people who are going to help develop all this stuff, who already have some software that does the job.
It's exciting. We're going to work with the Dalhousie Agriculture Department and other parts of Dalhousie to really put this all together. We're excited about it, the university is excited about it, and the developer is excited about it. It's going to be a powerful tool that's going to be on the farms. Some of the dairy farms already have some programs, but it's going to go way beyond what they've got.
Even their tractor - they'll know what their tractor costs to operate every hour they operate it, and all the maintenance - to make very informed business decisions on what you're going to do with equipment replacement, what you're going to do with labour, all kinds of things you can then look at and say, okay, it costs us this much to do, and here is the peak month in heating, so maybe we shouldn't heat that building that month. So what does it cost to shut the building down, make sure none of the damage goes to the building and labour costs? Is it worth it to do it? They'll have all the information at their fingertips so they can make those informed decisions. It's going to revolutionize the facility.
They're excited about it and we're excited about it, but it's probably going to take a year to two years to really get all the bugs out of it, get it in place, and get it fine-tuned. With these processes, what usually happens is a manager comes back and says that it does this, but we also want it to do this, and this, and this. So then you've got to put all those things in place. That's the interaction we need, so that when we put it on a farm or another facility that's going to help Nova Scotia's productivity go up, we have all that background and all those things done.
MS. ZANN: That sounds really exciting. Would that be one building you're talking about? So are you talking about an infrastructure like one building that you're going to make as the model, or the whole place? For instance, we know that a lot of those buildings are really decrepit and need to be torn down and fixed and replaced. I think the municipality at one point did an estimate that it would cost about $3.5 million or something like that.
The money is not going to be coming from the province, you said, so have you got a business plan yet from the board that you've put in place that will describe exactly how they're going to pay for these capital costs to the changes that need to be made in order to move this whole provincial exhibition area forward in the future?
MR. COLWELL: How much time do we have left, Madam Chairman?
MADAM CHAIRMAN: We have one and a half minutes.
MR. COLWELL: One and a half minutes. I'll probably need about 20 minutes to describe this, but the short answer to the question is that there is no business plan in place for that yet. We're still scrambling - and I mean "scrambling" in a positive way - to get all the costs under control that we can, to get things in place so that we can develop the business plan. That will come when we appoint the permanent board, and that will be one of their mandates. When we do that, it's going to be essential that they do that, and we're going to insist that they do that.
It's going to be an exciting time when that happens, but in the meantime, they are assessing the buildings to see what needs to be done so that they will have the basis for building the business plan. The homework is starting to be done, and the business plan - I don't know if you've ever done one or not, but just to write a business plan, as you would know, takes many months to do and to do it properly. You have to look at all the different scenarios and what happens when you do this, and how does it affect this? I've written several of them, and it's a long, drawn-out weekend project you start out with, and two months later you're still working on it every day. If you don't do that due diligence, your business plan is no good, as you are well aware.
We're really going to set some high standards for the facility. We want the facility to make money and reinvest the money . . .
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time has elapsed. We will be waiting for the subcommittee to finish, so we'll call a short recess of about five minutes. We'll return at that time.
[3:46 p.m. The committee recessed.]
[3:55 p.m. The committee reconvened.]
MADAM CHAIRMAN: The hnourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. TERRY FARRELL: Madam Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report progress and beg leave to sit again.
MADAM CHAIRMAN: Is it agreed?
It is agreed.
Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 3:56 p.m.]