HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2020
SUBCOMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
THE CHAIR: Order please. The Subcommittee of the Whole on Supply will now come to order.
We are meeting today to consider the Estimates for the Department of Agriculture as outlined in Resolution E1.
Resolution E1 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $42,075,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Agriculture, pursuant to the Estimate, and the business plans of the Nova Scotia Crop and Livestock Insurance Commission, the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, and the Nova Scotia Fisheries and Aquaculture Loan Board be approved.
THE CHAIR: The honourable Minister of Agriculture. You have one hour for your opening remarks.
HON. KEITH COLWELL: Thank you very much Madam Chair. It is a pleasure to be here again for another year. It’s hard to believe this is my sixth or seventh time at this. It’s hard to believe that’s how much time has gone by since I originally became Minister of Agriculture.
Agriculture has done quite well in the last couple of years. In this last year in particular, we’ve faced some major problems with a hurricane; the year before we had frost, we had a wet Spring. All kinds of things that are really attributed to, well some of it, to climate change. We are very concerned about that.
Just to give you some idea of where we are at today, the cash receipts from provincial agriculture in 2018 sit at $573 million. We don’t have the numbers for 2019 yet. Dairy, poultry, and eggs count as 51 per cent of the cash receipts; those are supply managed operations, which we fully support supply management. Other major ones last year were furs at $48 million; fresh vegetables, potatoes and green house operations were $34 million; and, floriculture and nursery products were about $24 million. There’s a notable increase in poultry and cattle, both up significantly, as were furs last year.
Primary agriculture was up 11 per cent in employment - that’s very encouraging - up to 5,200 people are directly employed.
We’ve been doing a lot of work in exports as is well known here, quite successfully. We see a lot of good opportunities for agriculture and exporting. We’ve worked highly with that; we’re known for very high-quality products around the world. Agri-food products are the fourth largest export category in Nova Scotia. We are very happy with that. We’d like to see them even higher and we are working on that. In 2019, we exported $364 million worth of agricultural products. Our major markets were the United States, Germany, Netherlands, and China. With the new strategy for Europe, we intend to improve our export activities in agriculture, and the other department that I represent, in Europe.
Wild blueberries and furs were the top exporters, exceeding almost $140 million in 2019, which is significant. We’ve also developed some blueberry wine products which are something new for the Asian market. It’s really an opportunity to value-add and I’ll talk about that more in the future.
We see continuing increases in exports all over the world. I will talk about seafood. We are now the leading and have been the leading exporter in Nova Scotia and in the country for seafood exports. But again, that’s for another discussion.
We talked before about the Canadian Agricultural Partnership which we’re into our third year, I believe it is, this year. We’ve really worked on that and put a lot of programs in place just specifically for Nova Scotia. We want to thank our federal partners for the latitude that they’ve given us to really tailor things for Nova Scotia, and it is helping. We are looking at markets, trades, science research and innovation, environmental sustainability, climate change, risk management, and the list goes on and on.
One of the key things we’ve really changed this time is public trust. We really want to work on public trust. Our industry has a tremendous respect from the communities, but we want to make sure we can grow on that and ensure that the farms have the credit they do have for the great work that they’re doing.
We came up with, this is unique to Nova Scotia under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, it is called a Small Farm Acceleration Program. We are very excited about this program. Basically, what it is, it’s a program that takes small farmers that really want to go full time, that may be part time now with incomes under $60,000 a year. We put individual supports in place for them to grow their business.
For example, if somebody is making $10,000 a year and they want to get to $11,000 a year, now that sounds a little bit strange in today’s society but it’s actually happening. We will work with them to help them put a business plan together. They set their own goal; we do not set it. We would work with that company, or that individual, or the individuals, involved and do everything we can do in place to make them successful. We’ve really have no parameters around the program, except the program is for under $60,000. They have to do a business plan. They can write it themselves; they can hire somebody to do it. Then our staff will review the business plan with them and work with them. Somebody may need a small greenhouse to get to their goal. So, then we’ll design a program either through a loan or something we can fit in under the Small Farm Acceleration Program, under our CAP program, to make sure they get the greenhouse.
When they achieve the goal that they’ve set, or exceeded, then they come back another year and we work with them again to improve them, and to get them up to a threshold. The idea of this, if you’re going to have a full-time living on a farm, $60,000 is too little - $10,000 is way too little - we want to get them up to a number eventually at their rate of progress. So, they’re happy and they know that they can achieve it based on their personal needs and the things they need to grow their business.
This has been hugely successful. I think, I don’t have the number here exactly, but the last time I heard we have 80-some small farms enrolled in this. It has been extremely successful. It really started a partnership between our department and the individuals on an individual basis, very confidential individual basis, to help them become full-time farmers.
Now, why would we do that with small farms? The reason we’re doing that with the small farms is because if you look at the UN report that has been out for a while now, that says by the year 2030 we’re not going to have enough food in the world to feed everybody. This is real. I was skeptical many years ago when they started to talk about climate change; one scientist said one thing, another one said another thing. The truth of the matter is this food supply is real. It’s real, the numbers are there, the facts are there, and as the population grows it’s going to become more and more difficult. So, the more people we can encourage to get into farming for a career - a lot of them have other careers, and farming - we can supply more food in Nova Scotia. We would become more self-sufficient in food supply. It also gives us food security and safety.
This is one reason we did this. A lot of our farmers in the province started with very little and have grown to be very substantial contributors to our economy and, indeed, that makes an excellent living for their families. It’s very exciting to see that. We are going to work with them. We’ll work with them and not everybody will succeed in this, but we hope that a large percentage will; it looks like that’s going to be the case, but we will see over time.
I also was fortunate enough to get to $9 million provincial investment in the Building Tomorrow Fund. We are very excited about some of the things we’re working on with that; half of that money goes to Fisheries and Aquaculture and the other half goes to farming. We did a major announcement in the fishery file this morning with the Université Sainte-Anne, on the fishery side of Building Tomorrow Fund.
We’ve been working now for some time in the blueberry sector developing new products and added value products. We’re working with the maple industry to do the same thing. We are soon going to announce another tool for farmers that will help them understand their operating costs on a live basis. That will be announced shortly. We are very happy about those and they are going quite well.
The other thing is something has changed at the department. I remember shortly after I became minister, out here in the parking lot the Christmas tree growers were donating Christmas trees. A big Christmas tree that goes to Boston every year, and Christmas trees to our department, to me as minister, we in turn donate it too. I donate mine to the Margaret’s House which is a shelter for people that are less fortunate than us every year. The growers came up and they said, we’re in the Department of Natural Resources and we would like to be in the Department of Agriculture.
I said well, that’s interesting, that’s good. Come to find out about two years later, they had already changed, and I didn’t even know about it. But they didn’t do the whole thing. So this year I was very excited to see that the Minister of Resources and Lands or whatever it is now - I can never remember the new name of the department - went to Cabinet and turned over the full responsibility for Christmas trees in the province to the Department of Agriculture.
It’s a better fit for them than it was in Natural Resources, what they were at the time. We have programs; indeed, we can help them. Out of our Building Tomorrow Fund, we made a $750,000 investment in the Christmas Tree Growers Council of Nova Scotia to look at markets and develop more science research, environmental sustainability, climate change, risk management, all these tools. I can tell you that it has really been a pleasure working with this organization. They have a great vision, they’re moving forward. This program will see increases in our exports of Christmas trees and when they get the new Christmas tree that doesn’t drop its needles, it’s going to be very exciting in the province. We are really pleased to see the Christmas tree growers as part of our family and farming. Because Christmas tree growth is really farming. So that’s very exciting. We keep working away at all these different projects in these areas undergoing the Building Tomorrow Fund which has given us a tool that we never had before.
We had, a year or so ago, a Frost Loss Program. It went out to 306 farms and we covered 48 commodities. There was some discussion last year about this. We paid out $10.14 million and really did help a lot of the farmers recuperate from this disaster that happened in June; that’s all about climate change. We managed to get them all paid out in the 2018-19 fiscal year, but it was really felt well in this year past - it allowed them to pay for fertilizer and other products - that they would not have had a good start to this season.
In our wine sector, we have increased the sales in the wine sector by $23.4 million including $384,000 in exports. In 2017, we started with 263 acres and we are now 900 acres in production of grapes. We have 94 grape growers, 23 farm-wineries, and 700 direct and spin-off jobs in 2017, and that’s even higher today as we speak.
We’re earning worldwide recognition with more than 200 local, national, and international awards. Some of the awards we’re achieving have never, ever gone outside the region that they were intended for; for instance, I think I’ve used this example before, one of our small wineries L’Acadie Vineyards went to Champagne, France and put their bubbly wine, which they’re now allowed to call champagne, up against the finest champagne in France. They won the gold medal and they wouldn’t give it to them, it was a mistake; never had anyone outside of Champagne, France ever won any medal, never mind that medal.
I like telling the story over and over again because it’s so important. So, they put them in brown paper bags, put them all out again, they all tasted them again; they won the silver medal. So, we have the silver medal from Champagne, France in Nova Scotia at l’Acadie Vineyards winery. First time in history. So, they were very upset with this and I don’t think they’ve invited us back since. It hs been a really positive story.
We set up the first ever minister’s advisory board in winery and we’ve had some very interesting discussions, very interesting meetings, and the word goes on and on, but at the end of the day, we have managed to really move the industry forward and work with them very closely.
We developed a wine lab that presently is almost qualified for international certification at Acadia University; that has been an exceptionally good arrangement. We’ve helped finance that and the federal government put some money in that as well. We came up with the mobile bottling line which is being used by the industry. That means that the industry can expand in other areas, they don’t have to invest that capital cost in a bottling line. We put another trailer together that puts the bubbles in the bubbly wine. Again, that means that some of the small wineries can expand a lot faster and, indeed, we’re also contracting out to other provinces and wineries in other provinces now. So, it’s very successful as we move that forward.
When we talk about the wine industry, we see other countries noticing our wine. Some of our wines are selling for really high prices. Those are the wines we make money on. Every bottle of wine that’s grown, the grapes are grown here and bottled here, without being exported is $38.65 economic benefit to the province; an imported wine is about a $1 to $1.50. It makes a lot of sense to buy Nova Scotia wine. Besides, it is a really top-quality product that will stand up against anybody in the world.
We’re very close at the present time, by the end of this fiscal year, the end of March, we will have in place the framework for a quality wine system, for grading our wine. When we get this complete, we’ll be the highest standard in the world for wine, when we’re finished. This has come with a lot of interesting conversations in the industry, and a lot of research in other parts of the world to see what they’ve done. We’re very happy about that. The wine industry is driving that, and I want to commend them for the work they’ve done in that regard; I was after them for a long time to put a quality system in place. I never dreamt it would be something that would be that positive and that strong at the end of the day.
I talked a little bit about the SMART Christmas tree. I’ll talk a little bit more about it now. This Christmas tree was developed by Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus in Truro. Basically, it’s a tree that doesn’t lose its needles. If we can get enough quantity in this, we’re going to see a huge increase in our sales nationally and internationally in our Christmas trees. Problem is now we can’t get enough trees in the ground quick enough; but we are working on that problem right today. That is coming and it’s going to be a huge success when the time comes. The industry has really stepped up. As I said earlier, they’re very anxious to learn more. They’re anxious to get their crops better, their trees better. They’ve really been exciting to work with.
The wild blueberry industry, everyone may recall it was a major problem with prices in the field of wild blueberries a couple of years ago. I had many meetings with the farmers that were having a great deal of difficulty because it cost them more to harvest the blueberries than they were really getting for them. But they still had to harvest them to get some cash flow.
A lot of things have changed. We’ve turned that around into an extremely successful story. It wasn’t a problem with the quality of our berries, we’ve got great berries - they’re probably the healthiest food you can possibly eat in the world, the wild blueberries. It wasn’t a problem that we lost a market, we had the market. Our problem was that we did too much production. Too much production because of the great work the scientists has done to get more yield out of the same field. They didn’t keep up the marketing with the production. That’s what got out of kilter. So, what we did, we worked very closely with Doug Bragg Enterprises, and we also worked with all the other producers of, processors of, the blueberries and we came up with a whole pile of value-added products.
We opened up new markets in Asia that weren’t there before. As of today, this we can call a major success and with good reason, there was a large inventory in freezers all across the country and those inventories are completely gone now. This year, we should see a huge increase in the bottom line for the farmers in the field, which is critically important to us as we continue to develop more snack food out of blueberries.
I talked a little bit about blueberry wine. Blueberry wine is perfect for our industry because we don’t have enough grapes to keep our winery facilities in full-time production producing products. We can get frozen blueberries, which is the product they need; we have an abundance of it. We can turn that into blueberry wine and they’re starting to develop a very high end, high-quality blueberry wine. It has been a bit of a challenge to get to the level that the wineries here want to produce it, at the same level we can win competitions all over the world. We’ve opened up some export markets and we’re getting, in some of the markets, over $100 a bottle for this wine. We’re very excited about that.
But that’s just one part of it. The other thing is this: we’ve got a lot of new products, we’re developing everything we can, plus we’ve opened up new markets that didn’t exist before. As we work with the industry, it has been a real success, and I want to thank the industry for their patience and their time as we see this move forward. We’ll see more positive things out of the blueberry industry. I know our export numbers are going to go up exponentially over the next two or three years. We’re very happy with that. It was a real team effort, from the processors to the growers to the equipment manufacturers and the whole nine yards. We’ve got more efficiency in the fields. We’ve got more efficiency in the products and new equipment has been tested and proven to be giving us a higher quality product. So that’s very exciting.
We’re actively working with the maple, pork, beef industry, and sheep sectors to put strategic plans in place for those industries, to grow them. Particularly some of the industry, like the sheep industry, is a great entrance point for the small farmers; the Small Farm Acceleration Program fits very well. Plus, in the sheep industry we have a CFIA approved processing facility in Northumberlamb, which we’re very excited about.
When you look at all these activities, if we’re going to grow the economy, which we have to do if we’re going to keep young Nova Scotians here, and their children, and their children’s children, we have to grow our economy. We’ve been very successful in our department doing that. We’re going to continue to do that over time. This year, we’ll be hosting the first annual, we’re going to make it an annual event, Minister’s Conference on Agriculture. It was quite interesting.
We were in the process today, yesterday and tomorrow, of having the Minister’s Conference on Fisheries which I started 22 years ago with a small group of fishermen, hand picked, to try to get them to organize and work with each other so we could go to Ottawa and get some results. I think we’re going to hit 900 participants - hopefully very close to 900 if we don’t hit it this year. We’ve got international speakers from all over the world including, I believe, it was the lady introduced there from the UN today that came. This conference is a total success.
We’re looking to do the same thing; the early registration actually for the agricultural conference was above the fisheries conference which has been in place for 22 years. It shows a lot of excitement in the industry, and excitement creates investment, opportunities, and young people to get involved.
I’m going to talk about young people. When I first started, one of the biggest crises in the industry was succession planning. There were all kinds of discussions about that: how are we going to get young people in the industry; how am I going to get my farm sold to someone that’s young and can afford to buy it? The list went on and on. I go to these meetings now, and I would say 50 to 60 per cent of the people there are young people. They’ve seen the benefit of coming to the province, staying in the province, investing in the farms, investing into family farms, or buying farms. The same thing is happening in the fishing industry. It has really changed. That whole discussion now, when we go to meetings, is gone. There are still some issues we have to deal with of course, but it’s gone. We see many young people bringing new ideas, new innovation, and it’s very exciting. We want to see that continue. That’s the future of our province; young people coming and doing the things that they see fit to make our province grow.
Back to the conference, the theme for this year is Farming for the Future - Thriving in a Changing World. It’s going to be a two-day conference, looking at ways to growing and sustaining a Nova Scotia agricultural centre. It helps, again, we’re going to bring speakers in from all over the world to talk to innovative ideas and how we can do things better. We’re looking at innovation; we’ve got a labour issue we’ll be talking about; all the different things we have to do on climate change and building and protecting our food supply and our food system. It’s a change. We really want to encourage those things to happen.
Labour continues to be a major problem for us. We are looking at ways we can automate wherever we can to cut labour costs and keep labour needs down. Temporary Foreign Worker Program, we’ve been working with that quite closely and actually, we have some people that are in to the conference now, for the fisheries conference that are also going to come back to the agricultural conference, from other countries that have labour, people that need employment that are willing to come to Nova Scotia. So, we are going to explore that more as we are trying to get more and more young people.
When we talk about a labour issue, we have, in agriculture, a scholarship program which we put in place last year. The idea of the scholarship program was to provide a scholarship for a young person that is in Grade 11 or 12 and going on to university, community college, or some kind of a certified training program. If they work on a farm for the Summer, could be up to two summers, they can get somewhere between $500 to $1,000 that’s paid directly to the educational institution of their choice to help offset their costs, whatever those costs are. We don’t care what the costs are, but it goes to the educational facility of their choice. It has been very successful. I’m just looking here because it’s further on - I’m getting sort of out of track here from my notes - I forget the exact number of people. We had $125,000 put into this project. I’ll find out how many we had that took advantage of this scholarship.
I remember the day we announced it, we were at a greenhouse, a large greenhouse. The young man there was a son of the owners and said, I’m going to take a welding program at Nova Scotia Community College. He said, you know, because of this scholarship, I can take the course. I’m not going to be in debt now because we saved some money to pay for tuition and everything else. I can take that course. I am coming back here. We need the welding capability here so we can save us costs on the farm. And he said, while I’m doing this, I want to learn how to manage the farm, and take over the farm.
That day it showed how important this was. This is a program that we’re going to continue. The idea is, number one, we’ve got a labour shortage. So, if we can get some young people living in a local community with the idea that they’re going to get a scholarship at the end of working for the farm for a Summer or two Summers, they may get an interest in the farm or in farming. They may come back and want to work on the farm. It may be the accountant that comes back to the farm; it may be the person that repairs the equipment; it could be any kind of career that they want to have. In the meantime, the farmers have the opportunity to have some really high-quality labour in the community, and it can be a family member. The idea is to get somebody there that’s going to work on the farm and get interested in farming. That’s one of the reasons we put this in place.
I think we’ve had around 100 scholarships this year. We hope to grow on that next year. It has worked out very well. We’ve talked to the young people that worked on the farms. They get full pay from the farm, that’s a condition. You have to have a T4 slip at the end, a separation slip, to prove that you did work there. We actually had 97 in agriculture. It’s a small investment for the province to encourage young people to get into farming.
I’m hoping we can spread it into maybe some of the schools in Halifax metro here. If they have a friend or something, they can work on the farm for the Summer and get their separation slip, show that and then it’s theirs. It’s a really simple program. It’s not difficult to apply for and it works really well. We’re working on that to help with some of our labour issues; it’s not going to fix it, but it will help. That’s something that’s unique to Nova Scotia. I want to thank my staff for coming up with these ideas; they are fantastic staff I have to work with.
Also, you probably have some questions on this I know, but the dike system and aboiteaux and the upgrades in the province; we’ve allotted $50 million in the Capital Plan for the provincial dike system. That money I believe has also been approved at a same amount of money for the federal government to work on our dykes; we have a four- or five-year plan to work on that. It’s going to include some of these things, it’s going to be a lot more than this, but it’s going to be the dike system in Annapolis River, Southern Bight, Cobequid Bay, and Cumberland Basin. These are just a few and there will be a lot more work done in other areas. Those dykes are very important especially with the rising water and other things that we have to deal with.
Our Farm Loan Board plays a really important role in the agricultural business in the province. We’ve got many families we’ve supported through multi-generations. We need that, as I said earlier, to grow our economy and to make sure that our rural farms and farming businesses have the resources they need, and access to funding when they are going to expand or they’re going to go into a new product, whatever the case may be. They have so many things that we have to work on and with the Farm Loan Board, it has been really positive.
Some really good things have happened federally with the CETA agreement with the European Union, where, effective September 2017, we’ve removed a lot of tariffs which has really been positive. We’ve got blueberries dropped by 9 per cent and fresh apples have dropped by 9 per cent; for the other side of it, there has been some other things, some challenges on the cheese side and on the supply managed milk. But again, in the short run it looks like it’s positive, and the federal government is going to have to address the other challenges that were created. We are competing very successfully in the international market and these do help us do that as well. We are always looking for new market opportunities such as the blueberry wine we talked about, and many more things. We really are a strong marketing arm that has been very successful.
Perennia is the company that the Minister of Agriculture owns. I set up an independent board to operate that, made up of people from the fishing industry and agriculture industry that have an extensive experience of running their businesses. The people that are selected for that are very successful in their own right and indeed have brought a lot of expertise to the table. Perennia has been a really fantastic place. They’ve set up new labs, they operate the bottling line that we have for our wineries, it has been a major partner in our wine development. We have viticulturists, internationally renowned viticulturists working there. That’s going to be really helping the industry. It’s exciting, what’s happening there.
The bee industry is another very important thing for us. We are very fortunate in the province to have almost 700 registered beekeepers with 25,300 hives. We have each year, almost 17,000 hives available to meet pollination needs; these are very important. We have closed our borders to importation of hives to Nova Scotia because of small hive beetle. We put a very rigorous quality inspection system in place a few years ago that actually prevented the small hive beetle from getting into Nova Scotia.
Unfortunately, I did write to the Minister of Agriculture at the time in New Brunswick, they didn’t follow our protocol and they now have the small hive beetle. It’s very unfortunate because it’s on our borders. As of today, we don’t have any of them. We’ve got a very close monitoring system for it, and it can be very devastating. This beetle has come from the U.S. into Ontario and it’s a really big problem. Thanks to our staff and the diligence they have shown, and the work we’ve shown, it has held it off for Nova Scotia, and is helping our industry stay good and strong.
Winter loss in Nova Scotia for bees is always a problem; all over the world, any place they have a cold climate like we have. For the past seven years, we’ve had the lowest Winter losses than anyone. That says a lot for our beekeepers. They’re doing a very good job and that’s a major thing.
This year we are having our third annual beehive honeybee symposium. That’s a symposium I started three years ago for a need to work with the beekeepers. I know we had a demonstration four years ago here where the beekeepers who were all upset about some stuff. I came to realize it was just a couple of people in the beekeeping industry who were all wound up. I met with them by chance, at a meeting they had, and I suggested we have an annual event. We started with a one-day event; we brought some experts in to talk about beekeeping. We had about 150 people show up. It was really positive. Then the next year, we united with them; we have one day, and they have their AGM the next day, because we didn’t want to interfere with what they’re doing on the business side of their association.
They have been incredible to work with and jointly between us, our department has learned a lot from the beekeepers and the beekeepers have learned a lot from us. We’re both learning from the experts we bring in to talk to the industry. It has been a real success story. Our third symposium was a total success again and we’re going to build on that every year. Now we set the schedule with the beekeepers themselves and they helped set the schedule and do everything. It’s really a joint venture with us and it’s exciting to see. We’ve come a long way from being not their favourite people in the world to now we’re equal to what they’re doing; we’re very pleased about that. I want to thank my staff for the great job they’ve done and the beekeepers as well for making this so positive for all us. Without bees we don’t grow very much in the province.
Food security has become a very serious problem. Most people aren’t talking about it; I talk about it every time I get a chance now. Food security is two things: it’s safe food number one, which we’ve always been very intently interested in, and it’s food security. In other words, we have food to eat.
When we look at this coronavirus that has hit Asia and to see how all the borders have been closed, all these things have happened. If tomorrow, the United States decides to close its borders to Canada, we would run out of food in our grocery stores probably in 24 hours. That’s no exaggeration. There would be panic buying. The only saving grace we have; we have lots of fish. People would have to get on a fish diet pretty quickly. But it could be serious for us. We have really got to consider this is probably going to be the next climate change challenge that we suffer in the world, to make sure we get enough food supply. We can be self-sufficient, but we are way below where we need to be.
We just recently, this weekend gone by, we announced Taste of Nova Scotia buy local campaign and that’s aimed at this, the idea of it is to get people to buy local. I was telling a story today, I was in Clayton Park, and we had the people from Taste there. We were at this Sobeys store, Sobeys put some products out on a couple of shelves and marked it Nova Scotia. So, we were looking, I wasn’t but the Taste of Nova Scotia people were looking all over, and they couldn’t find their product. They went to the staff at Sobeys and they said, we sold it out yesterday. People want to buy local. But our problem has been it hasn’t been properly labelled. You’re going to see in the store now totally different labelling; our products have got a new label. You’re going to see a major campaign. We’ve been working on this campaign for over a year to get it to a point that we can really identify to Nova Scotians, when they go shopping, they can make a conscious decision to buy Nova Scotia products.
Everyone I have talked to, to a single person, said we want to buy local. It’s got to be competitively priced. It’s got to be good quality. We have the quality, sometimes the price will be a little bit higher just because of the costs to produce some products here, but at the end of the day we’ll be very competitive and indeed have food security. We’ll make sure that we have enough food to feed our families, all of our families in the province.
A lot of these things are going to come from climate change. This coronavirus is a prime example. I don’t know what the Chinese people are doing for food; they have a very large population and they don’t have enough food in their country to feed the people. They have to be in a huge crisis. We’re working on that, and as we move forward, we are looking for all kinds of ways we can help our industry grow and prosper.
I told the industry a long time ago, I want them to make money. If they make money, they can do the things they need to do in their lives: they can expand their farms; they can invest in technology; they can educate their children; if they want to have a vacation, they can at least go have a vacation. That’s important to us as politicians and all Parties. They will pay more taxes into the economy and help pay for all the other services we need such as health care, education, highways, and all the other things. They wouldn’t mind doing it if they’re making money. It’s very exciting the things we’re working on. I’ve got a great team of people; we work together and we’ve got some major successes we’ve been working on.
Just want to wrap up on the Taste of Nova Scotia. The Taste of Nova Scotia brand is owned by the Province of Nova Scotia. We’ve partnered with Taste of Nova Scotia organization, which is a non-profit organization that works with the companies in Nova Scotia for quality marketing, all that sort of thing. It’s a natural fit for us.
We’ve managed to make some arrangements with Sobeys, Atlantic Superstore, Walmart, Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, many of the local retailers, Masstown Market, Noggins Corner Farm Market, the list goes on and on. We’ll be expanding the Taste of Nova Scotia brand and marketing strategy to all the farmers markets in the province this year as we roll this out. We’re very excited about it. The industry is excited and so are the people we’ve talked to about this in their local store when they’re shopping. It’s exciting to see this, long time coming, and indeed it has been worth the wait.
Also, we’re doing a lot of work on a pan Atlantic Technology Transfer Team for Apiculture aimed at helping improve bee health, overwintering success rates, and provide biosecurity systems. Just back on bees, something we’ve started, a program, in the province a couple of years ago. We’re still importing queen bees from different places in the world. It was our thought that it would be better if we can produce our own queen bees for two reasons: we reduce our risk of bringing disease in by queens, which is really seldom it happens, but it does happen, it can happen; it gives our beekeepers another market. They can produce bees and they can market not only in Nova Scotia, but anywhere else in Canada or around the world. It makes it more profitable. We are working very closely with them; they’re stepping up to the plate and making things happen.
We’re also working with the Atlantic Poultry Research Institute on a multitude of projects, like raising chickens without the use of antibiotics; food safety for eggs; healthy layers; feed costs; and all kinds of different things in the chicken industry, which we’re very excited about.
We’re also working with our Atlantic Grains Council, developing grains and we’ll see sector strategies that can be used to help producers make decisions on new opportunities.
So, not only is it important we have a lot of stuff in Nova Scotia, we’ve got probably a closer working relationship with Atlantic Canada and even other parts of the world, in agriculture than we’ve ever had before. It’s really wonderful to see the information we share with each other. Our staff has done a great job.
The inter-provincial ministers’ conferences; it’s always a pleasure to go there and hear what other provinces are doing. We’ve set up co-operative opportunities for us to deal with each other and work with each other. I’ve been minister a long time now in this department but I’ve never seen this level of co-operation before. It’s really helpful for us in Nova Scotia because when it comes to agriculture, we’re the small players in the game. We’re not the big players, but we can hold our own. We can do a lot of great things that some of the other provinces can’t do but we learn from them and we want to learn more from them. With those few remarks, I’d be interested in hearing some discussion.
THE CHAIR: Thank you Minister Colwell. You’re below the one hour so that’s wonderful. Just before we start with the PC Party, I have a couple of things that I should have started with: no photos, and everybody is to turn off their cellphones. I heard one cellphone earlier on, but I hope everybody took care of that. Photos are only for media.
There was a note given to me that there’s somebody here in the room who has a strong peanut allergy. So, we have put a sign at the door, just to make sure that no one brings any peanuts into the room.
That’s all, and now we will start with the PCs, with the member for Kings North for an hour. Mr. Lohr. I’m going to try and keep it, if you can speak to me so at least Hansard can get the names, but if once in a while the conversation goes between you, I’m going to let that go as well. We’ll try as much as possible to address it to the Chair for Hansard’s sake. Thank you. I’m sorry, I did say that earlier, but I spoke after that.
The honourable member for Kings North.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you Madam Chair. It’s a privilege again to be here minister and do Estimates with you. I think I missed one year, but with your tenure, I appreciate the opportunity to be here again.
I don’t know if we normally would introduce your staff but maybe you would do that first. I’ll give you the opportunity. I think you usually do that, and you didn’t do that this time if I’m not mistaken. I’ll let you do that first.
KEITH COLWELL: I’ll ask the deputy minister to introduce herself and my financial staff.
LORETTA ROBICHAUD: Good afternoon everyone, I’m Loretta Robichaud Deputy Minister.
REMI MACDONELL: I am Remi MacDonell, Director of Financial Advisory Services.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you, Mr. Minister. As you know, we’ve had, in agriculture, two kind of very different, pretty tough years. As you’ve mentioned, climate change may be a factor and that’s certainly the very unusual, maybe once in 200 years, maybe once in 500 years frost, in 2018. In 2019, a cold wet Spring and a very wet windy Fall seriously impacted a lot of farmers. I’ve heard some farmers have to refinance to get going this year. In February of 2019, you announced a sort of frost damage plan that, as you mentioned farmers could apply to, but we haven’t seen one exactly like that; our AgriRecovery program possibly for that.
I guess on behalf of the farmers in Nova Scotia the question is, is there any plan to help the farmers address the damage to crops, corn crop, grain crop, apples, for this year?
KEITH COLWELL: There’s no provincial program this year. A lot of the crops this year were covered under the AgriInsurance; a lot of the apple industry, a lot of the corn industry. Some weren’t covered; those ones we’ve worked with the EMO people from the hurricane part of it and asked them to apply to that fund. Hopefully there will be some assistance there. I don’t know what the status is on that because that’s not a program we are operating.
JOHN LOHR: I think I can speak for the agricultural industry that they’ll be disappointed to hear that. Mr. Minister, I guess what I would like to do, I want to go through quite a few details about different parts of your department. Where I want to start is maybe with the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, talk about that.
I noticed that the net portfolio at the end of this year is $15 million down from at the beginning of what was estimated it would be. I’m just wondering if you can explain the decline in the portfolio and why you’re estimating it will rebound up another $12 million in the coming year?
KEITH COLWELL: Actually our own portfolio has gone up. What happened was a series of old real debt, some if I recall right back into the 1960s that has never been addressed, we were addressing those old debts and cleaning up some writeoffs; some were refinancing, different changes. It made it look like we were loaning less money, but actually we loaned more money, more farms, and it’s just the way the bookkeeping worked.
JOHN LOHR: I appreciate that answer Mr. Minister. I guess it doesn’t totally add up to me. I see provision for accounts written off - it’s $4,413,000 dollars more than you expected, but its only $6,000,400 dollars - that doesn’t account for the $15 million difference that we are looking at in the value of the net portfolios. Maybe you can just elaborate more on that?
KEITH COLWELL: This is complicated. But it’s a good news story actually. What they have to do after two years, if a loan is in arrears, they have to set it up as a potential writeoff. If I get this right, tap me on the shoulder if I’m wrong here.
You have $5 million in that fund, and then if we recuperate all the money on that, if the property is sold or it’s paid off, or it’s refinanced somewhere else, whatever the thing does. So, our portfolio would reduce by that amount, even though we haven’t had a writeoff. In other words, some of these loans have been paid off, because we have collection activity on them and get the full amount back. So, it wouldn’t show as a writeoff, but it does reduce a portfolio in a positive way.
JOHN LOHR: You were mentioning recuperate. What efforts are made or what is the normal policy on recuperating assets if someone is in arrears?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s quite a bit different than the banks are, of course. But what typically we would do is we would work with the farm - if they were in arrears for the past two years - work with them to try to get them first of all, a payment plan that will work for them, to keep them in business, and give them some expertise if we can help them in that regard, to help them get to a point that they can make money. If all that fails, then we work with them to collect on our assets that we’ve got up as collateral. Work with them to sell those assets off, the maximum price we can get, to make sure they’re not left with a debt. Anything that’s left, work with them on a payment plan over a longer period of time, to get that money back over time. The worst situation would be, we’d have to take them to court, and seize the properties, and do that. We’d rather not do that, but we really are not tolerating people that don’t pay their bills anymore. But we’ll work with them on the other side of it.
For instance, one of the things they’ll do is they’ll amortize a loan over a lot longer period of time, so their payments are a lot lower. The goal is to make sure we get everybody possible to succeed as much as we can, and work with them to make sure that happens. If all else fails, then we take the last action that we need to take to recuperate as much as we can.
JOHN LOHR: I’m just wondering, if someone was trying to move or hide assets, you would take steps to prevent that?
KEITH COLWELL: By all means. We actually have a team of lawyers that work on that all the time. We work with the Department of Justice on that. Hopefully that doesn’t happen, but we do work on it very diligently, and it takes a lot of time to do it.
JOHN LOHR: Would that be retroactively too, over a couple of years?
KEITH COLWELL: We do everything we can to work with the farm to make sure we have the assets. The assets are not released at any time to recuperate the loan. So, if someone takes a tractor for instance, and hides it somewhere, there is still a lien on that tractor. If we can find it, we’ll take it.
JOHN LOHR: I’m just wondering about why, and I know how you mentioned - I know the fur industry has sort of been a source of barn bankruptcies lately - you did mention the fur industry had a good year.
Why were there $4,413,000 more than expected writeoffs this year?
KEITH COLWELL: The reason for that is because as you realize the mink industry is in a crisis now. Some of the assets we took early on we had to sell them at lower than what the original appraised value it was on it. We put an allowance in for a potential loss in that area.
JOHN LOHR: I’m just wondering, Mr. Minister, if you ever published that list of the written off. Does that get published, the $6,413,000 writeoff of who that was specifically?
KEITH COLWELL: Yes, that has been released and if you don’t have access to it, we can supply it for you.
JOHN LOHR: I would be interested in seeing it. I haven’t seen that one and I guess we haven’t even got to the year end yet either, have we? I presume it’s a forecast, so maybe when it is finalized, I would be interested in seeing it.
I noticed last year, you had writeoffs of, again, a fairly big number - $5,417,976.69, which is, again, more than the predicted $2 million. Can you tell me why was last year so much higher than expected, too?
KEITH COLWELL: We made a change here a while ago. Those writeoffs aren’t just for the agricultural board, it’s agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture all in one. The writeoffs were for both loan boards. I put that together to save some administrative costs and some efforts on it. Some of it’s from the mink industry. One of those is from a land-based aquaculture site that was set up years and years ago. We finally wrote that off, so it’s accumulation of different ones.
JOHN LOHR: You anticipate my question well because I was going to ask about the details of last year’s $5,417,000 writeoff. I am curious to know about the writeoff of nearly a million dollars to Canaqua Seafoods. I’m wondering if the minister can brief me on why that happened, what was there? It’s a very large amount.
KEITH COLWELL: This was even before I was minister, this loan was set up. At the time, they gave security on cages and stuff that we won’t do anymore. Now we only take security on land and solid assets we can sell. This is an old, old, old loan that we finally wrote off.
JOHN LOHR: Mr. Minister, I’m wondering about the licences that were associated with Canaqua? I notice and, in fact, I have information here that during the months of March, April and May 2017, you approved the transfer of the licence from Canaqua to another company, Cape d’Or Sustainable Seafoods. Presumably, the licence would be the one asset that the company had that was truly worth something. Then a year later, you write the loan off. I’m just wondering about the timeline of that. And why did that happen that way?
KEITH COLWELL: The aquaculture licences really have no value at this point. So, it would be just a transaction to assume a licence or a lease that someone had in place. It would have to go through the regular process of getting that, the same as it would with a fish processing licence. If someone decides to sell it or the company goes bankrupt, we can then issue that to someone else. It’s the same process we’d use if we were putting a new one in place.
JOHN LOHR: I’m surprised to hear the minister say the licences have no value. I’m not sure the industry would agree with that. I guess what I want to ask is, the principals of the company Canaqua, would you know them personally? Would you have been there at the site?
THE CHAIR: Minister Colwell, if I may. I believe these questions are more aquaculture. Maybe we should wait until you open the other portfolio where you have more staff, or are you okay with this?
KEITH COLWELL: This one is okay because it really was financed through the - it’s all part of the writeoff for that. I was almost at every aquaculture site in the province, as I’ve been to most of all the farms in the province. I had visited that site, I think once, maybe twice over the last seven years.
JOHN LOHR: Just for the Chair’s benefit, we did ask for the information on the Department of Agriculture’s writeoffs. This was the Department of Agriculture’s writeoffs. This was the document that we got back when we requested that number. I felt, well, this is what we got back on the Department of Agriculture, so we’ll pursue it.
In fact, Mr. Minister, and I’ve asked you about this in the Legislature previously, a couple of years ago. The principals of this company donated to your campaign in May of 2017, and in May of 2017, during the election, you transferred the licence for them, and two years later, you wrote off nearly a $1 million loan to this company. I’m wondering if you can explain that series of events to me. I question that.
KEITH COLWELL: First of all, I usually have no idea who contributes to my election campaign. I don’t get involved in that. That’s not my business. The campaign team looks after that. If you ask me who contributed to my campaign, I have no idea. I keep it that way because I don’t want any conflict.
Actually, these loans written off is totally the decision of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Loan Board. It’s totally their decision who they loan money to. I have no influence over them whatsoever. They make loans, writeoffs, and decisions on loans based on the information provided to them, based on the ability to pay, based on the assets and based on the situation of the company at the time.
JOHN LOHR: So, this is all just an amazing coincidence, then, that you write off a loan for this company after having allowed them to transfer their licence to another company, which they own, the individuals of this company. Meanwhile, we know they know you very well, too. We have a quote from one of the individuals of the company who says that he has known the minister for years, and he has always known him to be pro-aquaculture.
One of the principals in this company, the principal that we’re really dealing with here, knows you very well. But all just an amazing coincidence that these events happened in this sequence.
KEITH COLWELL: This is not my decision to make, whether we get loans from these companies, whether to write writeoffs to them. It’s done by the loan board. That’s why the loan board is set up independently of this. The people that did own that company at that time, I’ve known them because I was Minister of Fisheries before. I did visit their site, but again, I had nothing to do with any loans, any writeoffs, anything like that. That’s strictly to do with the loan board, an independent board.
JOHN LOHR: Mr. Minister, when there’s a decision made to write off loans, there have to be approvals on these decisions. This is a significant decision. I understand the Farm Loan Board and I’m sure the Fisheries and Aquaculture Loan Board do not make these decisions lightly. I know they do not. I know that both of these loan boards are operating wanting the best interest of, really, the producer. I’m just wondering, is there a requirement, then, that when these decisions come to be made about who writes off what loan or what loan is written off, you have to sign off on that, I would presume?
KEITH COLWELL: Under the regulations, I don’t approve the loans. The only time I see it is when we’ve got to take it to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board to get it written off or to the Cabinet to get them written off. At that time, all the decisions have been made. All the recommendations have been made. They’ve done everything they can to hopefully recuperate the loans and do this stuff. It’s totally independent from me. It’s all covered under regulations and policies within the department and I have no influence on that whatsoever.
JOHN LOHR: I guess, Mr. Minister, with all due respect, you’re known in the industry as a micromanager. I’ve heard you talk about your involvement in all the files. You’re very well known to be very involved in all the files. My question would be - I’m just stating that - what is the processing? Do you have to take this to Treasury Board? To Cabinet? How does that happen, to get approval to write off?
KEITH COLWELL: The way it works, is the loan board has to make the decision they are going to write it off. They make the decision independently of me. I have no input into that whatsoever. Then it goes to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice would ensure that the loan was going to be written off and that all the due diligence had been done. At that point, I would finally get to see it. Through an Order in Council, OIC. I would have to sign off to take it to Cabinet for write-up with everything else that’s being written off at that particular time, once a year. So, it’s standard. That’s the only time I see it and I’m just the courier to take it from our department to the Cabinet to get the approval to do it.
JOHN LOHR: Mr. Minister, this was a $961,199.95 loan. Nearly a million dollars. What efforts were made to recover assets for this loan to Canaqua Seafoods Limited?
KEITH COLWELL: The whole process around it - the loan board would go and they would try to collect and get all the collateral they could get, do everything they possibly can to collect it. That company then, at that time, can’t come back for a loan again from the loan board. They can’t get grants from us in the future, under that company name.
JOHN LOHR: I believe, according to the Registry of Joint Stock Companies, the company ceased to function in 2017. I’m just wondering, why did it show up in 2019 as an allowance for bad debt being written off?
KEITH COLWELL: It takes some time for the loan board to track down everything they possibly can to get the maximum recovery they can. It usually takes two or three years, sometimes longer, to get that done. Then it has to go to Justice. It’s a whole big, long process and that’s why it was so long.
It was actually set up for a potential bad debt well before that. It just took that long to explore every possible avenue they could to recover as much money as they possibly could on the file.
JOHN LOHR: If I can understand it, your department was requested to transfer the licence by the principals of this company to another company they owned in March 2017. The company was revoked for non-payment of its registration - I guess in May, if I read the dates right, 05/04, May of 2017 - almost at exactly the same time that you transferred the licence to another company owned by the same principals - your department did. I’m just wondering about the timeline there. You knew then - or your department did, your staff did - that the company was bankrupt.
KEITH COLWELL: We believe it was a loophole at the time, I don’t know. We’ll have to doublecheck and see how that transpired. Typically, the licensing people would check with the loan board to see if there’s any outstanding loans or anything on it before they were transferred. I don’t know what transpired at that point. I believe that, from what I was just given here, there was a new investor or a new investment or something. I don’t know the details, but we can find out.
JOHN LOHR: I can give you a couple of details. On May 4, 2017, Canaqua was revoked for non-payment of its registration with the Registry of Joint Stocks. On May 8, 2017, the licence was transferred by your department from Canaqua to another company owned by the same principal owner. That’s the details. I’m just wondering, why was that done?
KEITH COLWELL: The licensing part on that, we’d have to check with the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture on that. In the present day, we’ve changed a lot of stuff in the loan board. Not me, but the loan board has changed a lot of stuff to make everything more accountable. It really changed since our new CEO, who’s sitting beside me here, Jen Thompson, has been there. If you could ask me the same question when it comes to Fisheries, I’ll get you the answers there.
JOHN LOHR: Well, I’m certain that we’ll want to address this briefly tomorrow, too, but I just want to one last time review the facts as I see them, and maybe you can shed light on it tomorrow. During the election of 2017, five of the principals of this company that is in question donated to your campaign. At the same time, they had applied in March to have this licence for Canaqua Seafoods Limited transferred to another company they were all involved with, which was done during the election of 2017, in May.
A year and a half later, we see in the Farm Loan Board statements - and I realize it seemed odd to us to pick this up in the Farm Loan Board statements, but - a writeoff of $961,000 to the company. Nothing about this adds up, Mr. Minister. We think these licences hold value. We question the whole sequence of events here. I believe it does not look good, frankly. I know that we say if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, maybe it is a duck. It just does not look good and I just want to make that point. I am very disappointed to see this series of events show up in the paperwork supplied to us by your department.
Anyway, I do want to move on to other questions about the budget. I realize we don’t have a massive amount of time, so if we can both take our heads out of that for a moment and let that go, we’ll get back to it tomorrow, I suspect. What I’m wondering about is, why is the overall forecast down $10 million for the department? I know it’s over $4 million from last year, so why the big cut to Agriculture?
KEITH COLWELL: There are several things that make that up. We had the Frost Loss Program, as an addition to our budget last year, for $3.2 million. We had the wine industry program that was wrapped up. It was the last year for it this year. It was $2 million for that. We had fruit tree funding; that program has come to an end, as well, for $400,000. There was an amortization adjustment for lab equipment and dykes that made up almost $6 million of it. The other part of it was for allowance for bad debts, in case we have them.
JOHN LOHR: I know my friends in apples and wine will want to know, will those programs that you just mentioned, that are coming to an end, will they be renewed?
KEITH COLWELL: We’re looking at the programs now. We’re doing evaluation on them. They were very successful, both programs. We are addressing them, and we will see how we come out with those.
JOHN LOHR: As I say that, I think my friends in many of the other crop commodities will want to know if programs will be designed for them, too. I know the beef industry has developed a plan and put that in place. Is there any appetite to see the beef industry achieve the plans and the goals that it has for the province?
KEITH COLWELL: We’re working with all the different commodity groups and different initiatives. Typically, we’ve been very successful in working with them to help them grow their businesses, and we’ll continue to do that.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you, Mr. Minister. I’d like to ask about operating costs. I noticed that the operating costs were predicted to be $7.67 million. It turned out to be $14,160,000, and this coming year it’s predicted to be back down closer to what it was - $8,600,000. What accounted for the huge doubling of operating costs of the department?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s the appropriation of bad debt allowance we’ve made. It was an allowance for bad debt last year and it doesn’t get renewed this year. It’s just an accounting system.
JOHN LOHR: I’m having a little bit of trouble following that. When I look at the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board business plan, and how its funds are handled, I don’t expect to see any of that jump across into this overall statement for Agriculture. I don’t see the $7 million bad debt that this would account for - or $6 million. I don’t see that here. If it was there, then it should be there every year. Then the operating costs last year should have been $5 million higher, too. So, can you explain to me where the bad debt came from, and is it on the books of the Farm Loan Board or is it outside the books of the Farm Loan Board?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s a combination of a couple of things. Some of these writeoffs that we’re talking about with the loan board are people that hung on and decided to try to continue on with the mink industry. We didn’t have that in the allowance before, but we put in allowance after that. The operating part of it is the grants and programs, and the frost one, again, was a one-time thing that we did.
JOHN LOHR: So, rather than show the frost program in grants and contributions, one line down you showed it in operating costs?
KEITH COLWELL: Actually, an allowance for bad debt, which is what this is, shows as an operating expense in our books; that’s how it works. The way this is structured, what happened was that we had no idea what was going to happen to the mink industry. With the industry, the auctions being cancelled - the auction house going bankrupt - we had previously allowed for this and we took it out in the previous year. We thought the industry would come back with us, that’s what the loan board thought. Then we had to put it back in when we realized that indeed this was a bigger problem than we thought it was going to be. So, we put it back in and that’s why it showed up in that year. Then, that was offset, partly because it was $6.5 million, then programs and grants were taken off of that; that again is all part of the operating budget to get it down. It’s all accounting, it’s just how they do the accounting process.
JOHN LOHR: Maybe you can explain why I am not looking at this the right way. What I thought happened was that the Farm Loan Board operated, essentially, somewhat at arm’s length in terms of how it handled its money; it charges interest, it has a certain amount of revenue, you know a bank would make a profit, I don’t know if the loan board makes a profit, but it would not show up in the annual budget in that way. I thought that it would be sort of self-contained and it would not be something crossing over into the annual budget. Wouldn’t that be correct?
KEITH COLWELL: The way the provincial books are run and have been run forever, if we make money with the loan board, it goes back to the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board. If we write something off, it has to be in our books, and we have to pay for it.
JOHN LOHR: Alright, that does actually make sense. Let’s go on to salaries and benefits. You’re showing $14 million for the 169 FTEs, and estimated next year for, I guess, eight more people; you’re showing actually, less money. I’m wondering how does that work out? You’re showing a significant increase of eight people but really very little increase in the cost. I will remind you that minimum wage is going up.
KEITH COLWELL: We are getting the answer. Some of this is from that funding we got through the $50 million we talked about earlier, about the dykes. We put $50 million in and the federal government put $50 million in; some of those positions are with that program. We get the money from the federal government to pay those positions. We show them as positions, but they are not full-time positions in the department, they are just for this project, and there’s some other information too.
Yes, they are shown on Page 3.2. When you look at the Staff Funded by External Agencies, you can see that it’s only actually three and all that money is recuperated, if you look for the Estimate. The Estimate for this year is actually 3, not 8, but it’s all recoverable. We have no new full-time equivalents in the department.
JOHN LOHR: I wanted to ask about funding to Agencies on Page 3.3. At the start of the year, the Estimate was for $3,147,000 to be funded to Agencies, the forecasted actual is close to $10 million. I’m just wondering what accounted for such a large jump in funding to Agencies. Bottom of Page 3.3.
KEITH COLWELL: This is the bad debt again, $6.5 million of this; it keeps showing up everywhere. There was a salary in there for $86,000 for a regulation planning officer that wasn’t in there before. There are also a slight increases to the Farm Loan Board and to the Fisheries and Aquaculture Loan Board that makes it all up.
THE CHAIR: Order. The time for the PC Party has lapsed and we move on to the NDP.
The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
LISA ROBERTS: Thank you very much. Thanks for this opportunity. I’m going to take us to the goals that were in the former Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act legislation related to agriculture, for which 2020 was an important deadline. I’m hoping you can shed some light on where we got to with those goals.
The first one was that 20 per cent of the money spent on food by Nova Scotians be spent on locally produced food by 2020. Where did we get to with that?
KEITH COLWELL: One of the problems we have with this, we look like we’re 16 per cent growth, but we really have no real way of measuring this because we don’t know how it was originally set up. We are readjusting how we measure things to really get us an accurate number. We identified this problem about a year ago. The problem was we had no baseline data to base anything on; there was none. Now, from now on, we’ll have proper baseline data. We are putting a new measurement system in to measure this because it’s very important to us. We want to make sure that we are making progress on this as we are moving forward.
LISA ROBERTS: I’m sorry, so what we don’t have baseline for is the amount of expenditure on locally produced food in Nova Scotia? That’s what we don’t have any baseline data for?
KEITH COLWELL: Part of the problem was the last government measured the number of farms, not the actual dollar amount that was coming from those farms. We are changing the data. All the information was all mixed up and everything else. We are changing how we collect the data to get the actual number of what our farm gate sales are. We made a conscious decision a long time ago to stop counting the number of farms and start counting how much money we’re generating, and how much revenue we’re generating from these things. But it is taking us a while to get the measurement tools in place.
It really came to our attention about a year ago that this measurement, we couldn’t figure out what it was based on. Even the people that put it forward to us had no basis; they couldn’t tell us what they were measuring on. We reset the clock. That’s part of our Buy Local campaign and the Taste of Nova Scotia thing that we’ve been talking about, to reset that so, we can double our consumption of local food, and indeed make it better for our farmers to know exactly where we are, and how we are tracking it.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay, thank you. I had the number of local farms as a second goal which was in the legislation; that was a couple of years overdue in terms of reporting back on progress. There would have been some sort of progress report done in 2012. I’m confused that we didn’t have some sort of measurement figured out because the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act goes back to 2007; though, maybe that goal wasn’t there from 2007 and reported on in 2012?
So, can you share, will there be targets for local food procurement included in the new Act, the Sustainable Development Goals Act?
KEITH COLWELL: We are working on a new measurement system for Buy Local. As I said, the way it was structured to measure farms in Nova Scotia, is a very poor way to do it. A lot of people are registered farms that possibly aren’t real farms; it could have been put in place for tax purposes. Whatever the case is, we want to measure the actual numbers that we are getting out. That’s all part of this new Buy Local campaign we are working on. Our goal is to meet the Ivany goal of doubling the local production and local use of food, local foods in the province. That has been our goal from day one.
LISA ROBERTS: What specifically will be the target for local food that can be included in the new Sustainable Development Goals Act so that we do have something to track?
KEITH COLWELL: We are in the process of coming up with the formulations so we can measure it and measure it accurately. Once that’s in place, we are going to set it in regulation in our department so it’s actually in law.
LISA ROBERTS: Currently, the department does a very good job of tracking export sales. Do we track import sales of food?
KEITH COLWELL: The answer is no. We don’t track that. It’s usually done by Statistics Canada, even the numbers we use, so they are not our numbers. We do exports. I don’t know how they come up with the formulation, but they have a formulation for this, but it’s very difficult to track what comes in the province. It’s easier to track what goes out, because usually when it is going out of the province there is Customs documentation and all kinds of information. But when it comes into the province, if it comes across the border, it wouldn’t typically come into Nova Scotia, it may go into New Brunswick. We wouldn’t know whether its coming to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Ontario, or where it’s going. It’s very difficult. We are really looking at a new way of measuring this and the number of farms is not the way to do it. We figured that out about two years ago. In the meantime, we’ve been trying to get a handle on this. It’s all part of our new Buy Local program.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay. Again, I did have the number of local farms as a goal that has disappeared with basically the replacement of the EGSPA legislation. But there was also already a goal of the amount of money spent on locally produced food by Nova Scotians. That goal was that 20 per cent of the money spent on food by Nova Scotians be spent on locally produced food by 2020. That was in legislation from before the time that you would have become minister.
What was being tracked in the department related to a dollar value for local food consumption?
KEITH COLWELL: Part of the problem was the goal was set. It’s easy to set a goal, but there was no measurement tool put in place to measure the goal. It’s easy to say we are going to do this, but if you don’t have a concrete way to track and prove that indeed that is happening - so you get a baseline and you’re tracking it each year, to see that. The system we are going to put in place now, we’re going to track it more than yearly; we’ll probably track it every month. Again, it has taken us a while to get it. Once we get that in place, we’re going to put it actually in law.
The old program was just an awareness program under Select Nova Scotia. That was a program that was put in place by previous governments. We’ve wrapped that one up as of last year; it didn’t really do anything to show the dollar value. Our staff that worked on it, it was a good program, it made awareness, but there was no way we could measure it. Last year, we made the decision to wrap that program up and go into the Taste of Nova Scotia program I talked about earlier, and we’re putting new measurements in place and we are going to see how many places we can.
We can now track with some of the large retailers, what they are purchasing locally. We looked at our exports in agriculture and we came to find out that Sobeys alone was buying something like $46 million of Nova Scotia products that didn’t show up in our exports. They would move it from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, to a warehouse, and then they would move it all over the country from there. But it didn’t even show up as an export. We are working on a formulation that can do that, because we’ve got to be able to measure this stuff to make sure that we are making progress. If we’re not making progress, we have to change the program. We’ve changed the programs. We’re looking at the measurement tool now and nobody had a real way of doing it. There was no measurement tool put in when it was put in the Act.
LISA ROBERTS: Sorry, just to clarify, do you say that it was one year ago or two years ago that you discovered that the goal of 20 per cent being spent on locally produced food by 2020, that there wasn’t a way of measuring that?
KEITH COLWELL: It was just about over a year ago. Probably a year and a half ago.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay, thank you. I imagine in your conversations about how to measure, and what to measure, are you in dialogue with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture and the Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia?
KEITH COLWELL: We will be. We’re coming up with a formulation to do it; we will include the farmers’ markets, the retail outlets, everybody.
LISA ROBERTS: You’ve mentioned the Small Farm Acceleration Program, is that the one program in this budget that is allocated to supporting young farmers, or are there others?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s one tool we have. We’re the only ones in the country who have this program. We really aggressively want to get young farmers. Not just young farmers, some of the farmers that we are dealing with here are people that are middle aged and some older, that really had a dream of having a farm and they want it to become their full-time income. It’s not just young farmers. It’s a vehicle we can use, and we can measure what kind of progress we are making. Again, they set their own goal. We help them achieve their goal. If they achieve their goal, next year they come back, and we will work with them to get to their next goal, and the next year, and the next year, and the next year.
If due to some extenuating circumstance, they just don’t get to their goal, for instance, they get a bad frost that killed everything and they couldn’t get there, we would work with them another year and continue to work with them until we hopefully get them to a point that it can be a full-time career for them and look after the family. Because a lot of our farms, some of the biggest farms in our province, that’s how they started. A very small operation and they are very large today.
LISA ROBERTS: Just again, my colleague the member for Kings North talked about the decrease in the budget for programs this year. Can you share if the budget of the Small Farm Acceleration Program is increasing or decreasing in this budget, and what it is?
KEITH COLWELL: The budget for the Small Farm Acceleration Program depends upon the applications we get. There has been no reduction in it. We hope there’s an increase in it because of more demand. It’s demand based. This budget has no effect on that program whatsoever.
LISA ROBERTS: So, there’s no ceiling on the amount of money that can be sought under that program?
KEITH COLWELL: We have a total of $4.7 million we can spend on the CAP program. We don’t have a cap on that program at the present time because we want to encourage young people, and older people, people that are small farmers to get bigger. It has been very successful; we’ve had 117 applications over the last two years. When we started the program, we didn’t know if we’d get one or two. It’s very exciting to see, it’s a lot of things, and some of the people that have come.
We have a pretty intensive mentorship program within our department. They’ll come in, they’ll work on a business plan, we’ll go through the business plan with them - and the business plans usually aren’t complete, far from complete - we coach them on how to get to the next level; coach them not to overestimate what they are going to do that will set them up for failure. It’s a whole program. Then, when they come to the point that they need assistance, then we tailor a program specifically for them. This is something really unique in the country. We want to set them up for success. Everything we do is aimed at that.
Some people would come to us and they wouldn’t qualify. Not because we don’t qualify them, but they realize when they start looking at the financials and stuff, maybe it’s not for them to do. That’s the best time to find out, before they get their lives tied up in something that they can’t succeed at, or they feel themselves they can’t succeed - we don’t tell them they can’t succeed. We get that in place. It’s all about the individual. It’s an individual program.
A lot of the programs we have, for instance, we did a blueberry harvester upgrade program, and that was an industry-wide one; here are the rules, you can do this and this and this, and that’s the only thing you can do. This program is, you’ve got somebody who has an idea, has been working at this, maybe they were selling at the farmers’ market or selling locally, they want to get a bit bigger, they want to grow. Then we will tailor a program specifically for them.
Of the 100-some applications we have, we probably have 100-some different programs under that program. This year we’ve got $327,000 budgeted. If we get more applications, we’ll move that number up. If we really want young people - when I say young people I’m backtracking on what I told you earlier, people that want to make a career in agriculture, giving them the opportunity to do what they need to do, and we don’t want to restrain it by budget.
LISA ROBERTS: I’m sorry, earlier you mentioned $4.7 million and now you’ve just mentioned $327,000. What is the $4.7 million? What is that?
KEITH COLWELL: That’s the available money we have under CAP. That would be all our programs put together. We have a lot of leeway in the programs to readjust where we need to spend money to get the best maximum benefit for the industry.
LISA ROBERTS: In terms of the amount that a farmer could possibly receive under the Small Farm Acceleration Program, is there a formula related to farm gate sales, or is there some other formula that you could share?
KEITH COLWELL: We would typically look at the farm gate sales. They would have to come to us and indicate what their sales were; they would have to prove either through a tax return, typically a tax return, what they did. For instance, if someone comes to us with a tax return that was, I’ll just pick a random number, say they made $10,000 last year and their business plan is to go to $11,000, their tax return would have to show they went to $11,000 that next year. If they set that for their goal unless there was some extenuating circumstance and they couldn’t get to that goal. But it’s a goal setting operation for the individual farm. It’s totally a different program than anything that has ever been done before. It’s really tailored to the individual and the individual’s circumstances.
From my standpoint, when we see this, how this whole program was developed, and we’re the only ones in the country who have this program, the only ones - other provinces are looking at us very carefully, and you’re going to see some of them get engaged in this soon - but the idea is to move people from where they are, to where they really want to go, and do it in steps, in sensible steps. Because most time in business, people get into business, they’ve got a great idea, but typically, most people don’t know how to run a business. They’ve got an idea and they think they can grow something better and cheaper than anyone else. Usually they find out that’s not the case.
But sometimes they really have a unique product, unique idea and we want to help them turn that unique idea, that business plan or process they want to use, into a success for them. That’s really what we’re doing. It’s up to them to decide how aggressive they want to get with their business plan. If they get too aggressive, we will typically tell them it’s a little bit too aggressive this year, you should back off a little bit; if you achieve what your aggressive sight is, that’s fantastic, but don’t set your goal at that if it’s too high. But again, its all back to the individual requirements and how it can help them get to the next step in the growth of their operation.
LISA ROBERTS: I feel like I can continue to ask many questions about this program, but maybe I’ll see what is available online, or follow up with your department staff.
Just going back to the programs and the decrease in budget, earlier you mentioned that there were a number of programs that are not continuing. There was a wine or grapes program, there was the frost program. Is there anything else that is being cut that I should know about, as I look at those two numbers that are about $6 million in the difference?
KEITH COLWELL: The one thing, the wine program we had for the wine industry was a four-year program; that has come to an end. That was designed to do that. The tree fruit program, that has come to an end. That was a renewal of a project that was on before. Both of those projects have been extremely successful. We are re-evaluating all those programs to see if there’s more work that should be done on them or not. We will be consulting with industry and doing a lot of things around that. But it’s just a standard process; it came to an end. So, that’s why we don’t have it in the budget this year.
LISA ROBERTS: Can I ask, would those programs have had federal government funding feeding into them or was that provincial government funds?
KEITH COLWELL: All provincial.
LISA ROBERTS: I appreciate your comment about how the number of local farms is not the best indicator of the vitality of the agriculture sector. But do we have a sense of the number of farmers entering this sector versus the number of farmers exiting?
KEITH COLWELL: We don’t track that. The only thing I can tell you is when I first came to be minister, one of the biggest issues, and I talked about it a little bit earlier, was succession planning; to get young people interested in the farming industry. You go to any event now in the farming or fishing industry, that’s not a discussion anymore because the room is full of young people. It’s full of young people that have taken over farms, they’ve taken over fishing enterprises. It’s one reason we just recently went to Cabinet and Treasury Board to get more money for our Farm Loan Board, because we are making more and more loans to young people that are entering the process; either taking over their family’s operation or they’re starting a new process with a good business plan and a good approach.
It appears just by going to the communities and seeing what has happened, there’s a lot of excitement out there that young people are really getting involved. Some people too have changed their lifestyle and they want to get into farming in particular; that’s very positive as well. They’ve got really highly skilled people in other areas and can use those skills to help them be successful. That’s why we really want to look at the numbers once we get a formula, then we can do it. We are getting to close to finding what our real farm gate sales are in the province. Then we can track them on a regular basis and see if we’re making progress or not.
LISA ROBERTS: Sort of related to succession, and certainly a challenge that I’ve heard, is the cost to acquire land to farm. Is the department doing anything to facilitate the protection of agricultural land in a way that makes it possible for new farmers to enter the sector?
KEITH COLWELL: Agricultural land is very important to us. The problem with agricultural land is we see the farms become more profitable; the prices are going up on the land. Its going in the wrong direction if you’re looking at somebody to start into this business.
To start in this business today and be successful, if we work through the Small Farm Acceleration Program, that’s one way we can get people started in the industry if they’re just beginning. Other than that, it’s very difficult because farmland, since I’ve become minister, and I’m just using that as a time mark nothing else, almost seven years ago, the land prices were around $1,100 to $1,500 an acre for good farmland. Because of the wine industry moving in and some of the other things happening, some of the land is going as high as $50,000 an acre now; which is very positive from the standpoint for farmers making an investment, but it’s very difficult for someone young to get into it. But there’s lots of ways to get into it. I know that I’ve talked to many farmers who would gladly take young people under their wing, work with them, and give them an opportunity to buy the farm over time, all kinds of arrangements can be made once the people have the ability to run it.
Farming is not for the faint of heart. It’s a very difficult job. You really need to have a will to do this; you have to have some financial experience to do it as well. That’s why we’ve really come out with this Small Farm Acceleration Program. I think some of these young people, and the other people in the programs, will be very successful farmers down the road, but it’s going to take a number of years and we want to be there step by step with them.
LISA ROBERTS: I guess my interest is in the role of the provincial government in supporting that. Have you as a minister in your department, set any local procurement goals for government contracts, for example?
KEITH COLWELL: That’s a project that we work on all the time. We’re working with the schools right now to get more and more healthy products into the schools. I know the health care system has done a great job. The whole procurement process is really difficult because of the way it has been structured; actually, a lot of it was structured when your Party was in government.
So, they have suppliers that they supply to us and we have to market to the suppliers, which we are doing and which we are working on. We are working on the problem. It’s not an easy problem to fix. Everybody thinks if we sold all the products to the hospitals, schools, and everything else in the province, it would save our industry. It’s a small portion of what actual overall value of agriculture is in the province, but it’s an important part of it. That’s not the cure, that’s not the magic bullet.
LISA ROBERTS: I’m not suggesting that anything is a magic bullet, I’m just trying to figure out what we are doing with the funds that we direct.
I noticed in New Brunswick, for example, under their equivalent Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, all application for supports for festivals, for example, have to demonstrate that they’re going to be procuring from local food. That’s an interesting across government approach. I would welcome any news of something like that.
What per cent, again it goes kind of back to metrics of what we know and what we don’t know I guess, but does the department keep track of what per cent of agricultural land is lost in any given year?
KEITH COLWELL: We are very aware of agricultural land. We’re very concerned about some of the municipalities being interested in doing land developments; we are not happy with a lot of that.
As I said, by 2030 according to the UN, we’re going to have a shortage of food supply in the world. Every acre of agricultural land, or any opportunity that we can grow crops on, or anything we can add to the food supply of not only Nova Scotia but anywhere, is critical for us.
We’ve been dealing very closely with the Department of Agriculture, the Federation of Agriculture, with our colleagues in Municipal Affairs and Housing, and other departments to really work on a strategy to ensure that we maintain the farmland we have and grow on it. That’s why succession planning is so important, to make sure the farmer can sell his farm, make a profit on it, make a retirement out of it, and someone be able to afford to buy it. We are very aware of that. We are working on it steadily and we are working in conjunction with all the other agencies including the Federation of Agriculture.
LISA ROBERTS: Again, given that we’re in Budget Estimates, can you point to something in this budget dedicated to protecting existing or reclaiming agricultural land?
KEITH COLWELL: We are continuously consulting with the other departments that have more responsibility over land than we do. We have a lot of agricultural land that we own ourselves that we keep in agricultural land. There’s always pressure for development in these areas. We’ve been very successful with basically, from our standpoint, to the lands we control, and we don’t control very much of it, the dikelands is one example. We try to keep that as much in agricultural land as we possibly can. It’s a very complex issue. Again, it’s not one that’s easy to fix. But I guarantee you, we are working on it and everybody that’s associated with agriculture is working on it as well.
LISA ROBERTS: Does the department know in what areas of the province agricultural production is increasing and where it’s decreasing?
KEITH COLWELL: We don’t, per se, track it. We have a pretty good idea what’s in production and what isn’t. We are trying all the time to get more in production. I know recently there was some land that some farms had purchased from the province to put in agricultural production. Overall, we have a rough idea what it is, but we don’t really know what’s in production each year.
LISA ROBERTS: When you refer to agricultural land that the province has, that would be Crown land, Crown land that was previously used for agriculture, I assume. In which case, how would it have come into the Crown’s ownership?
KEITH COLWELL: I’m not sure how some of it came into Crown land or into the Department of Agriculture because some of it might have gone back like 50 years or longer. A lot of them are marshlands that we have protected by dykes. We are reviewing that whole process now to make sure we get maximum result of that, fair use of those facilities and get maximum production out of them. But some of the stuff goes back so far that sometimes we don’t even know when it happened or how we got it, it’s that far back.
LISA ROBERTS: Could you share how much land that actually is? Do you know what the acreage is?
KEITH COLWELL: I don’t know exactly what the number is, but we can try and find it out for you.
LISA ROBERTS: Would you know how much has been acquired in the past year? Is there still land actively coming into the department? How much is exiting?
KEITH COLWELL: Per se, we don’t buy land. That’s another department that does that. Again, how much is exited, I don’t know how much is going into real estate development or whatever, but maybe another department can tell you that. We don’t track that particularly. I know that what we see is a great deal of interest. I know there’s an organization in the valley area that is really looking at land which we support. They are doing a great job to preserve agricultural land.
There’s a lot of interest in it and a lot of work on it, but again it’s very difficult because most of the land in Nova Scotia is owned privately. Sometimes people will sell it, sometimes they won’t; sometimes they don’t want to put in agriculture, sometimes they do. They can’t be forced to do stuff they don’t want to do.
Also, I didn’t mention, but the dykeland we have, we own some of that land but some of it is owned privately as well. The dykes were set there, probably some of those dykes, 400 years ago. We also protect the private land behind it as well. Some is farmland some of it is not. Some of the municipalities have encroached on it and built things like sewage treatment systems on it; they should have never built on it. But it’s all an issue that we are very aware of and very concerned about. As we move forward into this century and see how badly we are going to need this land down the road at some point to grow products, it’s really important that we do that. Maybe it’s a question you should ask me or one of the other departments when they come in.
LISA ROBERTS: A last point on that, is the department actively working to protect commons pasture land as well?
KEITH COLWELL: Yes, we’re reviewing the community pastures which we don’t own, but belong to the Farm Loan Board. We’re looking at those now. There has been some controversy in the communities about not getting adequate usage out of them, so we are reviewing that whole process. It was a process set in place a number of years ago when they set up commissions or community groups that look after this from the community. There has been some controversy in the local communities of how they are being used, who’s using them, and all this stuff. So, we are reviewing that right now, we are in the process of doing that. We may change how that’s done because we want to get the maximum benefit to the community, number one, and also maximum benefit from agriculture on those sites.
You might want to check with Municipal Affairs and Housing, they put out a new land use requirement, including agriculture usage. So, you might want to check with them when they come up for Estimates.
LISA ROBERTS: Thank you. It helps that I’m the critic for about eight departments. So, back to the dike lands, I know that major infrastructure projects seeking federal finding are required to do a greenhouse gas emissions assessment. For example, the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund used in the overhaul of the Fundy dike network. What analysis does your department do on the climate change and/or greenhouse gas emissions impact of its programs and policies?
KEITH COLWELL: Actually, we did a contract with Stantec - I don’t know who they are, but it was Stantec - to do evaluation on greenhouse gas and the effect on the marshlands. It’s all part of the big project we are doing with the federal government’s requirement to do this, and the greenhouse gas effects. That study’s under way now and we should have a draft of that probably in April or May of this year. That went out to public tender.
LISA ROBERTS: What sea level rise is expected in the Bay of Fundy part of the province?
KEITH COLWELL: We’re reviewing all of the information because existing information, we are finding is not accurate. Again, it goes back to the baseline; they are reviewing all of this information, there’s a lot of research going into this at the present time.
LISA ROBERTS: Can you share anything about what has been determined so far about the emissions impact of the Fundy dike overhaul?
KEITH COLWELL: With the work they are doing and the way they are doing it, with the work part of it, it’s going to be carbon neutral.
LISA ROBERTS: Can you clarify in other programs that the department runs, is there a climate analysis done when the department is deciding on programs that it is putting in place, and climate impact tracked of those programs?
KEITH COLWELL: We are working closely with the Department of Environment on this. They are starting an initial scan on this whole process to see where we can make the most gains.
LISA ROBERTS: But, in terms of climate-proofing agriculture, certainly the department for example has supported transitions of some parts of the province towards more grape production. Is the climate impact of that considered?
KEITH COLWELL: We are looking at all those things. As far as the grape industry goes, again we are in early stages of this. It looks like it may be carbon neutral or even a positive situation with them because you are not tilling the soil every year, you don’t put tons and tons of water on it, all the things like that. Once it’s in place, the changes year to year are very minor.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay. Sorry I’m sort of slightly jumping around. Back to the Fundy dyke project, what consultation was done with communities around the project?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s in early stages of consultation but it will be a complete consultation, including the Mi’kmaq.
LISA ROBERTS: Can you share any details of what that consultation will look like?
KEITH COLWELL: It will be conducted with the people in the communities that will be affected, including the sewage treatment systems in the municipalities, it will be the Mi’kmaq again as I already said earlier; full consultation on these.
LISA ROBERTS: What is the timeline for the project. When will the dykes be in place?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s an overall nine-year program. We are one year into the program now. We’re hoping to start possibly some construction this year, upon completion of the course of study of what needs to be done to get that all in place and also the public consultation.
LISA ROBERTS: We know that some of the challenges that farmers are facing have to do with extreme weather, poor growing conditions, and maybe especially unpredictable weather. Late last year, we learned that 2018 was a very bad year for farmers, with net income down from $16.5 million in 2017, to a loss of almost $40 million in 2018, and expenses up by $28 million. What I have here is farm revenues were down $100 million and farm debt went up. What is the department’s strategic plan to address those concerning trends?
KEITH COLWELL: The biggest problem with those are the hurricane we had, the frost we had, the wet Spring we had. Again, those are all unpredicted, very hard to control circumstances and beyond what we can do and beyond what the farmer can do.
We are working with the farming industry now to see if there are other ways we can protect the crops: some of the farms are using tunnels; we are going to basically year-round greenhouse operations in the province in some areas. We are looking at a lot of different options for the farms. We have to, based on what has been happening; we are not sure if that’s going to continue, but climate change looks like it’s going to continue. Again, we’ve had hurricanes, we’ve had hurricanes in the past as well, so we really have to try to change how we are doing business.
I know in the grape industry for instance, we went from the hurricane having almost zero damage to having substantial damage. In the apple industry we had serious damage in the trees, but when you look at the two fields and you see the apple orchard and a vineyard, if you didn’t know the difference, you would not know they were different because they are all trellises now; the trellises are almost identical. There are some things that the wine industry did that the apple industry didn’t do. We have to work on these best practices and really prepare ourselves and our farmers for every consequence we can imagine, but again it’s hard to tell.
Like I said earlier, it looks like the damage we’ve had, the frost in particular, is something that might happen every 100 or every 500 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to repeat next year. We are looking at different types of frost protection.
We are looking at Business Risk Management Programs nationally right now, to see if they can be adjusted to better reflect the realities of today’s climate change, today’s businesses. There’s an agreement between all provinces and the federal government to review these and change them. What will come out of that, I am not sure. I am not sure it will be in place during this time with the present CAP program, federal provincial program, or if it will have to wait until the new one comes. We are hoping we get something in place before this one expires in another two or three years’ time.
LISA ROBERTS: Remind me, the frost program, it’s one of the reasons why the budget line for programs has decreased. Those would have been provincial dollars or would there have been, there wasn’t an appeal to the federal government for money to fund that? Is that correct?
KEITH COLWELL: We always apply to the federal government when we can get funding. That was not covered under the federal program, or any federal program we could find. Fortunately, we convinced my Cabinet colleagues that it was something we had to do. They agreed and we put the thing in place and did it last year, just before the end of the year, very successfully. The industry was very happy with the results and happy with the way it was done. Indeed, it helped a lot of the farmers get through that year into this year.
LISA ROBERTS: Looking at this budget, what budgeting has been done for both proactive and reactive work around the impacts of climate change and more frequent extreme weather events on farmers?
KEITH COLWELL: We are working on that through our CAP programs and looking at different ways to mitigate the risk. We continually adjust our programs, our federal-provincial programs, to take these things into consideration; we do that in consultation with the Federation of Agriculture and the industry. So, until we get an agreement on how we can mitigate some of these things individually, then we can put a program together that will indeed have a positive impact, we are still on those. It’s not an easy answer. Its not sort of, you put everything under plastic, and it cures all your problems. That’s not the way it works. I wish it was, it would be so simple if we could do that.
I know before, we had a water shortage in some of the farms, a drought in the Valley in one area. We immediately put together a grant to drill wells and to put holding ponds in. Those are in place now to look after drought and they will be there forever. That was a good investment for us. Since then we have not had to use them, but I’m sure maybe this year coming or the next year, those will be put to full use. It’s all those things. It’s like buying insurance and what kind of insurance do you buy? Maybe you get hit by lightning, maybe lightning’s one time to get hit; next year you’re not getting hit by lightning. So, do you get lightning insurance, or don’t you?
In our case it’s not insurance, we are really going to invest in things that will help the industry and really be effective. It’s hard to do it. We’ve already done things and insured new crops like the grape industry, and the haskap industry, and some other ones under insurance. So, that’s mitigating the risk that way and we will continue to do that over time. In order to do so, we have to have a request from the industry, then we have to do an evaluation on it. Some of the industry don’t want the insurance for some reason, I don’t know, that’s up to them, and we can’t force it on them. We can’t put a program together that we cost share with the federal government unless we can prove to the federal government that indeed our industry wants it.
LISA ROBERTS: Quickly, did the department do an analysis of the use of cisterns versus the use of deeper wells?
KEITH COLWELL: In the case that we put the wells in place, it was not the matter of the wells being deeper, it was a matter of having no well. So, we put wells in place where there were none.
LISA ROBERTS: Is the department offering, on an ongoing basis, support to farmers who are looking at installing cisterns or using other alternative or innovative water solutions?
KEITH COLWELL: Water solutions haven’t been a problem the last couple of years. We tend to react to what our issue is at the time and work through that issue. While we do these, like the wells is probably a very good example because that infrastructure is there now; we will have that for the future. If we can do that sort of thing, more of those things that we can do to really mitigate risk in one area means a less likely chance of having a problem in that area, at least. So, we can keep moving on to do other things to mitigate the risk. It’s all about risk management.
LISA ROBERTS: What was the total impact on farmers from Hurricane Dorian?
KEITH COLWELL: I’m not sure we have a number on that. I know it was serious but just let me ask. The Federation of Agriculture estimates $10 million. I have no idea if that’s accurate or not, and I don’t know how they got that number, but I know it was substantial and one of the big problems was feed. Some of the corn was damaged in some areas; in some areas it was not damaged. This Winter they’ve had to source feeds, in some cases, outside the province. It was a serious consequence for the industry.
LISA ROBERTS: Is there support available through the department for a $10 million event as opposed to, you know, the frost event or the drought event?
KEITH COLWELL: The hurricane is a different type of event than the frost because frost really affected the agriculture industry directly, and only the agriculture industry. A hurricane is under a national disaster fund and I guess you would have to ask the EMO exactly how that is handled with the federal government. I know they’re working on that all the time.
Most of our losses were covered by insurance, through crop insurance. We hope to extend that crop insurance even further. A lot of the people did get insurance, some didn’t, and some weren’t insurable because they didn’t want insurance in the past and we don’t have a program for them. So, it’s a Catch-22.
LISA ROBERTS: What is included in this budget to improve the way the department supports producers who are making choices that protect the environment or reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
KEITH COLWELL: Through Efficiency Nova Scotia we funded a full-time employee to go to farms and do energy efficient audits. We are also working on an electronic information gathering program, which we haven’t announced yet, that will help identify energy costs and a lot of other costs on the farms automatically, then they take steps through Efficiency Nova Scotia. They’ve been great to work with, and we’ve got some really good results to mitigate those costs: some of them could be like lighting changes, it could be insulating buildings, it’s all kinds of stuff. We are working closely with the Department of Environment as well. These are funded through our CAP program, our federal-provincial program.
So, it’s exciting what they are doing but it takes a long time to see the results. From the time they do the study to determine on a particular farm what needs to be done, and then the implementation is done, it takes a while to start receiving the benefits from the energy reduction. But it’s a program that’s very well done and we are going to see some substantial improvements over time.
THE CHAIR: Order. We only have a couple of seconds left. I don’t know if you would like to do a quick one.
LISA ROBERTS: I think I’ll say thank you and maybe I’ll end the discussion.
THE CHAIR: Time has lapsed. Thank you so much and we move back to the PC Party.
The honourable member for Kings North.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you Madam Chair. I just want to clarify that it is our intention that these four hours be for Agriculture. We want to allow the minister to have time, maybe he can clarify how much time he needs for his closing remarks. I just want to clarify that with the NDP. The NDP are good with that, or did you want to keep going?
THE CHAIR: Ms. Roberts
LISA ROBERTS: I have a number of pages of other questions. If it were possible to have the department staff back tomorrow at the beginning of Estimates before we switch to Fisheries and Aquaculture, I would welcome that.
JOHN LOHR: So, one hour of Estimates? Then we would do one hour tomorrow and then do the closing remarks? All we want is this one hour and yeah if you want more you can have more.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay, maybe I will have a little discussion with our House Leader.
KEITH COLWELL: From my standpoint, the only thing I need to do at the end is just read my resolution.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Lohr.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you Madam Chair. I noticed you just mentioned the cost of production app. I heard you talk about that in a farm group recently, I think on January 28th, I believe. I just wonder if you could just unpack that a little but for us.
If you could just tell us a little bit about that app, and where that’s at, and what’s happening with that, the cost production app?
KEITH COLWELL: There’s not a lot I can tell you about it yet. We haven’t officially announced it yet. But it’s going to be a program to monitor live costs on your farm. So, you’ll know exactly what costs are, every minute of every day for everything you do. I’m just going to leave it at that until we announce it. We will announce it probably in the next week or two.
JOHN LOHR: There are a few questions that have arisen from it and probably more from your comments publicly on January 28th than what you just said. But you mentioned on January 28th in the Old Orchard Inn that you were doing a partnership with Amazon on this.
I’m just wondering if you can tell us what the nature of that partnership with Amazon is? Is the contract available publicly? Or is there a contract? What exactly does the partnership with Amazon look like?
KEITH COLWELL: There is no contract per se because we don’t pay Amazon. It was a competition that can be entered into by anybody that’s developing an electronic technology with Amazon. You apply for it. The people who are running the program for us applied for it. They got equivalent to $200,000 provided by Amazon free, with no connection to Amazon that they will own the technology or anything like that. I believe they are going to go beyond that because they are so excited about the program. It just adds another $200,000 value and expertise that we don’t have in the province to the project. It’s going to make the project even more successful and it’s just exciting that they see the value in this as we do.
JOHN LOHR: Are the people who are doing this for you in the department, in Perennia, or outside of both?
KEITH COLWELL: They work for Perennia.
JOHN LOHR: I guess one question which arises is if Amazon is providing $200,000 in kind, which is what I believe you said on the 28th, and you just said it now, is there an obligation to use platforms provided by Amazon or software provided by Amazon? I’m just wondering.
KEITH COLWELL: It’s technology provided by Amazon, by their technical experts, that will feed into our system. There’s no connection with Amazon or commitment to use their platform, or anything else.
JOHN LOHR: So, I will raise a concern that was raised in the room that night, I think you heard it too. That is, obviously, what I understood that what this was going to be was a phone app that a farmer, or business person presumably, could use to have real time costing of their operation. If Amazon is involved in the creation of this, then the concern is is there going to be data accumulating or being mined by Amazon through the usage of this app? What plans are there in place for the Province to protect the data?
KEITH COLWELL: From my understanding of what this is, the technology they are providing is technology that’s helping us gather this information. It’s not data that can be mined. This is going to be completely encrypted, it will be secure information; it has to be secure information through the whole system.
JOHN LOHR: It’s my understanding that these apps that you use on your phone end up having the data stored somewhere in the cloud; someone is managing that data in the cloud. I presume it’s not the Department of Agriculture. In fact, the data can be mined, yes, it is encrypted but it’s easily unencrypted by the people who manage the cloud. Again, I’ll ask, what will be the safeguards for the individual users of this, that their privacy will be protected?
KEITH COLWELL: Well there are two ways this can be done. It can be done on a laptop computer or fixed computer onsite and all the data go to that. Or the information can then be downloaded on an app. The app hasn’t been developed yet, but everything will be encrypted because it is going to be critical to protect the information. That is all a part of the project; to make sure that this is properly monitored.
JOHN LOHR: Estimates suggest that Perennia receives an operating grant of $2.5 million. How much more did Perennia receive from the department this year or last year for special project work?
KEITH COLWELL: Approximately $2.7 million.
JOHN LOHR: That would be $5.2 million in total for it to operate? I know that Perennia is nearly almost half the size of the Department of Agriculture now. It has grown to 70-some people and I will say that it is highly regarded in the industry. I know you know that, but there is a concern about what I would call mandate drift.
In the beginning Perennia was focused on agriculture and it has also become very involved during your tenure as minister of both departments, Agriculture, and Fisheries and Aquaculture, it has gotten into Fisheries and Aquaculture extensively.
I think it has also drifted into other mandates. One of the other mandates that it has drifted into that I’m concerned about is the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition Commission Complex in Truro. As you know, Mr. Minister, I think it was three years ago you stepped in and did a “fix”. A year later, another fix, and now it’s in Perennia. So, this is a third iteration of a solution, but now we do not have any idea how much it’s really costing us.
How much is the management of the Nova Scotia Exhibition grounds costing the taxpayers of Nova Scotia?
KEITH COLWELL: We provided no funds through Perennia to the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition in 2019-20. We put in controls in the Exhibition now and Perennia doesn’t operate the Exhibition.
JOHN LOHR: So, you are saying that the Nova Scotia Exhibition grounds are not managed by Perennia.
KEITH COLWELL: They are not.
JOHN LOHR: Who are they managed by then?
KEITH COLWELL: They are managed by a manager who was hired.
JOHN LOHR: Who hired the manager?
KEITH COLWELL: The individual was hired by Perennia, but they operate independently.
JOHN LOHR: It was my understanding that Perennia was tasked with stepping in and fixing the Exhibition’s problems. You’re telling me that Perennia hired the manager who has successfully operated, or is operating it now at break-even, which is really great to hear. But to me, that sounds like Perennia has drifted off its mandate and is in fact responsible for managing the Nova Scotia Exhibition grounds.
KEITH COLWELL: You’ve been incorrectly informed.
JOHN LOHR: I can tell you, Mr. Minister, that if someone hires the manager, they are responsible for firing the manager and overseeing the manager. So, in fact, the person or the group who does that hiring is managing and overseeing.
KEITH COLWELL: Perennia does not manage the facility.
JOHN LOHR: How much has it cost Perennia to get to this point now? I know they were tasked with managing the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition grounds. Evidently, they did it until they had a manager successfully running it. How much of Perennia’s time and effort and money was taken up managing this Exhibition ground?
KEITH COLWELL: Perennia has never managed the Exhibition ground.
JOHN LOHR: But they did hire the manager.
KEITH COLWELL: They went through the hiring process, yes.
JOHN LOHR: Okay. I don’t know if we are going to get anywhere on that, any further.
I’m wondering about the Farm Loan Board and vacancies in the Farm Loan Board. I know agencies, boards, and commissions there have been long-standing vacancies. What efforts have been made - I know when you look at the business plan there is an Acting Chair with the Farm Loan Board - at what point are you going to address the vacancies in some of these agencies, boards, and commissions, like the Farm Loan Board?
KEITH COLWELL: We continually have problems getting applications for the boards, continually. Part of the problem has been over the years what the remuneration is for board members; the skill level you have to have when you come into these positions doesn’t really suit what the remuneration is. So we are having a very difficult time getting qualified people.
We sometimes run ads when it comes up. We might get one application, maybe two; half the time they are not qualified to do the job when they go through the whole process, you know the process now is very complex - as it should be - that has been our problem. It’s an outstanding problem everywhere. Some of the boards we have - I don’t know what they get paid in the Loan Board.
The Loan Board member gets $100 per meeting: it could be an eight-hour day, plus travel expenses to get there. The Chair or Acting Chair gets $150. In order to get the high-quality people, which we do have on the loan boards, on both our loan boards, it’s very difficult. They are doing it because they want to. It would be very hard to get, say a chartered accountant or someone like that, who is in an active business making a living from it, to take a day off and cost them thousands of dollars for $100 in return. That’s part of our problem. If you have any suggestions of someone you think should apply, encourage them to apply. This is an ongoing problem for us.
JOHN LOHR: I will certainly do that, Mr. Minister. I do want to revert back to the theme of Perennia and mandate drift. The other thing that I noticed Perennia has taken on is the whole Buy Local program.
I’m just wondering, what is the budget for that program? How much time has Perennia committed to that? How many FTEs?
KEITH COLWELL: Our Buy Local project is about $350,000 and no money has gone through Perennia thus far.
JOHN LOHR: I’m sorry, my head was still there. Can you repeat that?
KEITH COLWELL: We’ve got approximately $350,000 in the Buy Local program. Most of that is within our department and Taste of Nova Scotia.
JOHN LOHR: But this does represent a new endeavour for Perennia, to be involved in Buy Local - something that would have been in the department prior?
KEITH COLWELL: I’ve got to get this straight. This is complicated. There have been a couple of employees hired through Perennia for this contract because this is one of those projects we’re working on to get it finished, so we have no full-time equivalents.
Our problem in the department is we can’t hire any more full-time equivalents above what we have. So if we have - I forget what the exact number was. We have approximately 169 employees in the department, and when we do a special project, we are not permitted to add any more full-time equivalents to the department because it’s for a special project.
What we do sometimes is go through Perennia or contract someone like - in this case, we contracted Taste of Nova Scotia to do some of the work on this project. Some employees hired a couple of employees through Perennia to work on the project.
JOHN LOHR: The comment has been made to me, and I don’t expect you to comment on it, but there is a concern that political staff have moved over to what would be a professional organization, part of the civil service - Perennia. There is a concern in the industry about political staff - your staff - being hired by Perennia, which has happened.
I just want to express that concern. Maybe you do want to comment on that.
KEITH COLWELL: Any staff who was ever connected with me and got a job, they did so on their own merits. There would have been full competitions done for those positions. They would have hired - I don’t know, I have nothing to do with it, and no knowledge of how they got the jobs, but there would have been full competitions and done properly.
JOHN LOHR: But in fact, Perennia has one shareholder, correct?
KEITH COLWELL: One shareholder, but they have a board now responsible for Perennia.
JOHN LOHR: The one shareholder is you, correct?
KEITH COLWELL: The one shareholder is me, but they do have a board now that is officially running Perennia.
JOHN LOHR: I just want to point out that I’ve heard you make that statement before, that you are the sole shareholder of Perennia as the Minister of Agriculture.
KEITH COLWELL: I am the sole shareholder of Perennia, but within the last year - I forget exactly when we did it - we signed an agreement with the board that the board operates Perennia.
JOHN LOHR: The CAP, $37 million over five years - how far are we into that, and are we on target? Are we using the federal money that’s available over those five years, or is it being used up quicker, or are we leaving money on the table?
KEITH COLWELL: We have two years left in the program. We’ve already started talking to the federal government about another CAP program. We will leave no money on the table when we are done, and we won’t overspend.
JOHN LOHR: The previous Growing Forward 2 program - was all of the $37 million utilized for that?
KEITH COLWELL: We don’t have the numbers on the last program, but we were a bit underspent. We can get that information.
JOHN LOHR: Sorry - that’s already two years ago, and you still don’t have the numbers on the last program?
KEITH COLWELL: We have the numbers, but it’s two years old, so we don’t have the numbers with us. We will provide the numbers.
JOHN LOHR: How much was it underspent by, approximately?
KEITH COLWELL: I don’t like to do this. We’re just guessing at this, because we have to check the numbers, but probably around $1 million. That would be both the federal and provincial contribution. Because it was the first year of the program, it took a while to get the program off the ground. That’s why it was underspent last time. This time we started right away.
JOHN LOHR: Just to be clear, those are 50-50 federal-provincial cost-shared dollars? Or 60-40? I’m just asking.
KEITH COLWELL: It’s 70 per cent federal, 30 per cent provincial. Sorry, I was wrong about that. It is 60 per cent federal, 40 per cent provincial.
JOHN LOHR: I do want to ask about tile drainage. As the minister knows, there has been a significant amount of farmland - in Annapolis Valley in particular, actually, where I live - that maybe was farmed 100 years ago or more. It certainly was. It has been cleared of trees lately, in the last few years, and now is being farmed again. There’s a need to put tile drainage in that.
Is there any intent to have a tile drainage program that will be widely accessible and available to farmers?
KEITH COLWELL: There is a program for it. We’re just trying to get the details on exactly what is.
JOHN LOHR: I’ll wait to hear that. Mr. Minister, another concern is dykes. As you know, your department has control of the dykes and you deal with marsh bodies. There are places where the dyke ends but the issue doesn’t end right there. If you go further, the dyke has ended, but the ground is still low past the dyke - maybe not subject to flooding, but very, very low.
I’m just wondering what your department is doing to ensure not only that the dykes are okay but that they are not going to go end around on some of them, where a little bit further there is still an issue, even though the dyke you have a mandate for ends right here.
KEITH COLWELL: We actually have three locations like that, which you would be aware of. There’s the Bishop-Beckwith Marsh, the Town of Wolfville, and the Grand Pré Marsh Body. We don’t own those properties, but we are actively working with all three of those communities and with the Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing to resolve this problem.
JOHN LOHR: The three again, sorry?
KEITH COLWELL: The Bishop-Beckwith Marsh, the Town of Wolfville, and the Grand Pré Marsh Body.
JOHN LOHR: One I know about - and maybe we are talking about the same one - I would call the Farnham Marsh dyke body. That would be a different one. That would be in Port Williams.
KEITH COLWELL: We’re familiar with that one. We are looking at that one as well.
JOHN LOHR: I know that the minister knows, and we all know, that the state of the dykes is a very serious issue. In the case of some of these dykes - I think Bishop-Beckwith and Farnham Marsh - what the dykes are protecting is not only farmland but homes.
I believe the minister would tell me that his mandate is only to protect farmland. I believe that’s correct. However, whose mandate is it, then, to protect the homes behind these dykes?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s my mandate to look after the soils, but we also have a mandate to look after critical infrastructure behind those dykes.
JOHN LOHR: Could you define critical infrastructure?
KEITH COLWELL: The Auditor General has defined all the assets behind a dyke as critical infrastructure, so it’s under my mandate.
JOHN LOHR: Thank you, Mr. Minister. I would certainly say that I think homes, businesses, industrial parks, roads, town sewer systems, septic treatment plants - everything is critical behind these dykes. I certainly hope that you are - I know you are, in fact - doing things to address that. I hope it’s quick enough.
I didn’t think I was going to ask my next question, given yesterday’s news, but it seems like it continues to go on. There’s a lot of concern among farmers in the province about the supply of propane. With the national blockage of rail, we’ve had significant shortages. There are plants that are affected. There are barns that are affected. No one has actually run out yet, but it’s very, very close.
I’m wondering if the minister can tell me what steps he has taken to address the issue with his federal counterparts.
KEITH COLWELL: We work closely with EMO. EMO is really responsible for this. According to them, there is an adequate supply at the present time, and they are monitoring it on a regular basis - daily, I believe.
JOHN LOHR: I trust the minister is correct. I know we are all hoping that’s how that turns out.
I do have a question about the insurance premiums for crop and livestock insurance in the book. You showed that premiums are going to increase by $200,000 for next year. Is that because you’re expecting increased participation or increased rates?
KEITH COLWELL: It’s actually a combination of increasing participation, which we want to do, and some of it is because of the hurricane and the frost. That’s the premium increases.
JOHN LOHR: So you’re expecting more participation in the programs?
KEITH COLWELL: Yes, we were hoping that we get more people enrolled in the program.
JOHN LOHR: I’d like to turn it over to my colleague for Cumberland North.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Cumberland North.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: Thank you. I was hoping to just sneak in a question about harness racing and wondering if you could update us. I was trying to find in the budget how much money our provincial government allocates to harness racing in the Province of Nova Scotia. Does it come from the Atlantic Lottery Corporation or does it come from provincial revenues?
KEITH COLWELL: There’s $1 million a year that comes from the Lottery Corporation. It’s administered through our department and the money goes out to several things. We can give you a total breakdown on that. We can supply you with that information. Some goes to the Truro Raceway, some goes to Inverness, and some goes to North Sydney. There’s some administration cost in there, I think, but we can give you the complete breakdown on where it goes. It’s $1 million a year.
ELIZABETH SMITH-MCCROSSIN: Is there anyone working on the future of harness racing in the province, and are racinos part of that plan, if anyone is working on it? Are there any barriers to growing that industry here in this province?
KEITH COLWELL: I’m not personally aware of any racino. I know there was some interest in that by the harness racing industry. I don’t know where that is at this present time. That wouldn’t be under my responsibility. That would be under Part I or Part II of the Gaming Control Act. You would have to ask the minister for that when they come forward.
Our biggest barrier in harness racing that I can see is the lack of participation from people who want to go to the harness racing and bet. That’s where the money comes from to help the races and purses and all that stuff. It’s getting people to go, and the people who are actively engaged in this are getting older. It doesn’t seem like the young people are coming forward. That’s an uneducated answer, but that’s what I’m hearing.
JOHN LOHR: We’d like to turn the rest of our time over to the NDP right now, if that’s okay with the minister.
THE CHAIR: The honourable member for Halifax Needham.
LISA ROBERTS: Thanks to my colleague for Kings North for the time.
Could I ask first, what analysis does the department do on the gender breakdown of producers? Do we know if the number of women producers is increasing or decreasing? Is the number of women producers in the agriculture sector going up or down?
KEITH COLWELL: That number is actually tracked by the federal government. It has increased, but we don’t know how much.
LISA ROBERTS: With federal statistics, you can say that yes, it has gone up in Nova Scotia, but you don’t know exactly how much because of sample size? That kind of thing?
KEITH COLWELL: We don’t have the number with us, but we can supply it. We know it has gone up.
LISA ROBERTS: Does your department do any work to support women producers in the agriculture sector?
KEITH COLWELL: We are working under sector development on this issue. I can say by the visits I do - I do a lot of visits to farmers’ markets and farms and one thing or the other - that I see more and more women involved in this industry. We have some pretty large operations that are run by women in Nova Scotia, which we’re very happy about. I can tell you they’re very shrewd businesspeople, which is the way it should be.
Actually, we’re having a session on that next week.
LISA ROBERTS: I would say maybe you could invite me, but I think I have plans next week.
The organic market is growing exponentially for organic fruit and vegetables, but demand consistently outpaces supply. The certification process can involve costly updates and long waiting periods. What is the department doing to better support farmers seeking organic certification?
KEITH COLWELL: We are fully aware of that. We are very supportive of the organic industry. Unfortunately, it has been a very small group of people. They’re great people to work with. We put the organic regulations in at their request three or four years ago. There’s more work we have to do with them.
If anyone from the organic industry comes forward with a proposal, we look on it very favourably. If you know anyone in that industry who we can help, we would be glad to do that. They’re aware of that anyway. We would like to see more organic operations.
Actually, Lightfoot & Wolfville, the winery, has the highest organic certification you can get in the world. I think he may be the only one in North America. It’s not where you typically think about that. His wine and all the grapes are certified to this level. It’s an international certification.
There’s a movement in that direction. We would like to see it - I would personally like to see it - move even further towards organics, especially as we move towards a sustainable food supply for our province.
LISA ROBERTS: Thank you for that. I will note that we don’t eat grapes. I still appreciate that.
The Federation of Agriculture is a crucial support to farmers that runs many important programs and relates to the department. How much money is going to the federation from the department?
KEITH COLWELL: Last year we provided them just over $485,000. This year we believe it’s going to be higher because they’re working on our Environmental Farm Plan - a public trust program that we’re putting together with them under the CAP program and also Farm Safety Nova Scotia. This year it should probably be higher than $485,000.
We don’t have the final number yet because they’re still working out the details with them.
LISA ROBERTS: Does the department measure outcomes from funding to the federation?
KEITH COLWELL: Yes.
LISA ROBERTS: Okay. I’m not going try to tease more out of that. We know that farmers, in particular, have concerns about abattoirs and about access to the infrastructure needed to process their livestock, particularly around scheduling and availability, especially since this shift of inspectors to the Department of Environment. What role is the department playing in trying to address those concerns?
KEITH COLWELL: Personally, I’d like to see all our abattoirs go to CFIA certification. That opens up new markets and new possibilities for us, and it’s under the realm of the federal government.
You’re going to have to ask the Department of Environment about the enforcement and the work they do. I know there have been some issues around that, but I believe they’ve all been addressed.
We are very interested in setting up more abattoirs, either provincially inspected or federally inspected. We worked heavily with NorthumberLamb to get them CFIA approved. It took us over a year. We worked with Perennia. They did a lot of the work on that. That’s very, very helpful for us because that means that the lamb in the province that goes through NorthumberLamb can go to the Sobeys distribution centre or to the distribution centre for Loblaws. It means we open up a whole new market. It’s pretty exciting for that.
The trouble is to get these sites set up. We looked at doing a CFIA-approved abattoir for pigs, but the cost of operating it is so high when you go to CFIA that it’s very, very difficult. It’s a matter of cost. It’s a matter of cost. It’s a matter of getting a business case for somebody or some commodity group to work together to get an abattoir in place. There is a shortage of abattoirs in the province, mainly because some have closed because someone’s retired or whatever the case may be.
I don’t know what the solution is. We’ve been working on this ever since I became minister. I’m sure the minister before me worked on it as well, and the one before that as well. It’s an issue.
We would gladly help fund them and help work with them to do this, especially if they’re going to CFIA. That opens up all kinds of market opportunities for us.
LISA ROBERTS: I assume that your interest in the CFIA approval is because it allows export of the product. Am I correct to assume that a provincially inspected abattoir cannot be used for products that are going to be exported?
KEITH COLWELL: When you say “export” - we can’t even move a product to New Brunswick. CFIA allows them to move into New Brunswick. For us, a CFIA-approved facility all of a sudden opens up the markets with Sobeys and Loblaws and Costco and all those places that have their distribution warehouses out of Nova Scotia.
Once it hits the border, they can’t take it anymore. If they market it in Nova Scotia, they can market in Nova Scotia from an approved provincially inspected facility, but they can’t cross the border with it. That’s why we’re very interested in CFIA approval. It’s pretty complex.
I’ve never been able to understand why every single facility in the fishing industry is CFIA approved. I can take you and show you a facility - you look at this facility and it looks like a little shed, and it’s fully CFIA approved. All the standards in place and everything done. Yet if we go to do a meat-processing facility in the province for any kind of meat, it seems as if it’s a horrendous job. Nobody wants to get involved in it.
The fishing industry has lived with this forever. To set up one of these facilities - and fish is a lot more difficult, because the chemical concoction they have to use every day has to change to keep up with the bacteria when they’re doing the cleaning. The meat processing doesn’t have any of that kind of bacteria problem. They have a bacteria problem, but not that bad.
There’s some kind of disconnect somewhere and I’ve never been able to figure out what it is. I’ve asked our staff. We haven’t been able to figure out what it is. There’s some kind of disconnect there. It just doesn’t make sense.
LISA ROBERTS: I appreciate that. I understand that right now in Cape Breton, maybe not just beef farmers but other producers as well have to bring their livestock to Tatamagouche to be processed.
Is there a way for the Province to support that capacity even at a provincially inspected level, given tourism to Cape Breton, given local demand, and given the expense to farmers of having to truck livestock to Tatamagouche from Cape Breton?
KEITH COLWELL: We’re very, very familiar with that. Part of the problem is the amount of animals that would be processed in Cape Breton. I believe, if I remember right, that there was a processor in Cape Breton that closed. We really have to have a willing partner to work with - somebody who wants to do the processing. That has been our problem over time.
If someone has the capability to do it, we will definitely assist them to get them up to standard. There’s no question about that. It’s hard to find somebody who wants to do this. Once they start looking into the cost of setting it up - even a provincially inspected facility, which is getting you reasonably close to a federally inspected facility - it is very prohibitive. You’ve got to put a lot of product through there on a regular basis.
A few months ago we met with a couple of people who were really interested in setting up a facility - not in Cape Breton Island, but on the mainland here. We went through what all the requirements were with them. It’s very difficult to get someone interested.
They just let me know here that there’s a new processor in Goshen, which is a lot closer for Cape Breton, that I wasn’t aware of. That is good news, but still not on the Island.
LISA ROBERTS: The only Goshen I know is close to the airport, so there must be another one. (Interruption) Now I know. Thank you for that.
One of the frustrations I heard from farmers when I attended the Federation of Agriculture meetings in Truro, which you also spoke at, was related to the new free trade agreement with Europe, CETA. They are finding it very difficult to access any opportunities from that, yet it has resulted in increased competition to their products on the store shelves here.
It seems like it’s only a loss for the agricultural sector here even though there’s this new market that Canada has negotiated to have access to. Do you have a position or a program related to that from the department?
KEITH COLWELL: The problem comes with supply management. That’s where the biggest problem is. You’re talking about cheeses and some other things. The federal government is committed to working with the industry to correct that financially or in other ways. That’s an issue the federal government is working on.
The other thing is the markets have helped us in blueberries. We’ve seen a reduction in blueberry tariffs. It has also helped us in seafood and it will help us in other products as well. It’s a matter of getting into the market and picking our markets we can go into. Again, we were never geared up, in some of these cases, for these particular industries to market our goods outside of Nova Scotia.
In some cases, we can’t, especially in supply management, because that’s controlled. It’s quite a unique thing. It’s great for the farming industry. We’re big supporters of supply management. There’s a lot of pressure, I know, from places all over the world, like the U.S. and other places. It’s very, very difficult for supply management to compete because the other countries look at it as a closed market. They want supply management, so they go after supply management every time.
The federal government has done a reasonably good job - this government and the past government - to protect supply management. We’re big supporters of it, but it creates some problems for them. We are in the process of ramping up our marketing in Europe as a number one priority for our agriculture and our fisheries products. We’re in the process of doing that now.
LISA ROBERTS: I’m not an expert, but it strikes me that European agriculture has got to be at least as protected as Canadian agriculture is, be it via supply management or other means.
We know that there’s a large opportunity for farmers to participate in the emerging cannabis industry. What work is the department doing to promote cannabis growing to existing farmers for outdoor production? I know last year you said that the department had nothing to do with it, but we’re starting to see outdoor cultivation of cannabis under the new regime. I’m wondering if that has changed at all.
KEITH COLWELL: We’re still in the same situation. We have nothing to do with it.
LISA ROBERTS: How many temporary foreign workers were employed in the agricultural sector in Nova Scotia last year?
KEITH COLWELL: I wish the number was zero and we had all people working in Nova Scotia. I don’t know the number. We’d have to get that from the Department of Immigration. We don’t track it, but they do. We’ll get you that number.
LISA ROBERTS: If, when you ask for that, you could also ask for the average wage, I would be grateful. That was my next question.
KEITH COLWELL: I know the wages aren’t an issue. I believe that, according to what the farmers tell us, by the time they have all the costs in, it costs more to hire a temporary foreign worker than it does to hire a local worker.
LISA ROBERTS: I’ve certainly heard from farmers, and also people in the fish processing sector, that finding housing for temporary foreign workers, or for any other workers, is getting to be more and more challenging in rural Nova Scotia. Is the department doing anything to improve access to housing for farm workers?
KEITH COLWELL: Under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the farmers or fish plants have standards that they have to go to for housing. They have to supply the housing.
LISA ROBERTS: Again, my question is: Is the department doing anything to improve access to housing for farm workers?
KEITH COLWELL: Through our loan board, we’ve done a number of loans to farms to build proper housing for workers.
LISA ROBERTS: I’d be interested to know - I don’t know if we can find that through publicly disclosed documents - what the amount is that the department loaned for housing-related projects.
KEITH COLWELL: To put an exact number on the housing is difficult because sometimes it comes in as an overall package. We can probably get you a number of units that were developed that way.
LISA ROBERTS: Thank you very much. I have a couple more.
Can you share how much the department spent on employee overtime last year and how much the department is budgeting for overtime in this budget?
KEITH COLWELL: To get an actual number on that, we don’t have it. We can go through the HR department to get it. Typically, if staff have to do something after hours, they would take time in lieu instead of overtime.
LISA ROBERTS: Could you provide a list of each contract the department entered into last year - the amount paid, the type of services provided, and the name of the individual or vendor?
KEITH COLWELL: They’re all in the book you have - the Budget Book. All of them. I don’t know what page it’s on. It’s also in the Supplement, when you’re looking for it.
LISA ROBERTS: Did your department do, or did you work with another department to do, any gender-based analysis of the impacts of your department’s budget?
KEITH COLWELL: There’s a whole process in our department where people self identify their gender. There’s also diversity training that has been put in place for all our staff. All of our staff have taken that this year.
I would say our department, dealing with the staff - I don’t know the exact numbers - we’re probably, especially in the Department of Agriculture, one of the highest ratios of women working in our department than any other place in government.
LISA ROBERTS: I’m going to take us back to just a bit of a broader-scope question. Maybe I’ll invite you to talk out the time, because I think I’m done, but I don’t think we’re done.
THE CHAIR: We have exactly 10 minutes left.
LISA ROBERTS: Ten minutes, but I know you can do this.
A number of times you’ve mentioned food security in the context of various questions. I guess I would be interested to understand what your definition of “food security” is.
We know that many Nova Scotians are food insecure as it relates to income and poverty. I don’t think you’re talking about that kind of food security. Frequently in our conversations there has been a real focus of the department, and I’d say in government in general, around promoting exports.
I think there could be a case made that export capacity and producing food particularly for export also don’t actually contribute to food security, either for individuals struggling with income or for us as Nova Scotians contemplating possible flooding of the Tantramar Marshes sorts of scenarios or other supply-chain breakages.
I would really welcome your thoughts on, and you sharing, what the department’s definition of food security is and how it is pursuing objectives related to food security.
KEITH COLWELL: Food security is several things. You’ve identified a couple of the things that are very important.
The beginning of food security, number one, is food safety. We’ve got a safe supply of food. We import food from other countries that don’t have the same high level of food safety, even though they’re inspected by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, certified, and all that stuff. We don’t know what happened to that product before we got it here. That’s part of food security, to make sure it’s safe.
Another element is food supply. We’re talking about that more and more. I already talked about the United Nations - by 2030 we’re not going to have enough food supply in the world to feed everybody. That leads right into the comments you made, too. We want to make sure everybody has a food supply, not just the people who can buy it and pay for it.
One of the things we did that has been very, very successful is we put the tax credit in place for farmers to supply food to food banks. That has made certain types of foods available to food banks basically all Summer - all year round, in some cases - to people who would never get an opportunity to have that food. This is not thrown-out food. It’s not recycled food. This is stuff straight from the farm.
The farmers are very excited about it for two reasons. Number one, they always contributed, but now they’re contributing even more because they get a tax benefit from it. In some cases, it’s material that would have stayed in the field, but not always anymore. Today a lot of the farmers are contributing food because they have it. In some cases, it’s stuff they could sell and make money on. They care about the community and they want to make sure that food is available to the general population - people who, for whatever reason, can’t afford to buy food.
That has been a fantastic shift that I’ve seen in the last six or seven years. It’s very pleasing. We’re already dealing with farmers who care. They really do care. To see them even go the extra extent - we’ve made it possible for them to do that because they can get a tax break. That means they get a benefit from that so it’s not a total loss to them that makes their farm non-profitable. If their farm isn’t profitable, it’s not going to help any of us.
When we look at that, that’s why we’re so interested in measuring properly how we see what progress is, instead of counting farms or counting what kind of food supply we have and what the farmgate sales are. That would include stuff that goes to the food bank and everything else we put in there. We’re working on a proper measurement tool for that.
I know there was a question asked here about propane supply. When the CN Rail strike was on, we were one week away from having to euthanize hundreds of thousands of chickens - hundreds of thousands - because we couldn’t process them. Luckily, that ended and that didn’t happen. That’s part of food security. All those things add up.
As far as making food available to people who are lower income, again, the food bank’s one way I know in my area. A lot of people who use the food bank aren’t necessarily people who go every week. Sometimes it’s people who have lost their job. They’re in between jobs and they need the help. We’ve seen a few people in our office - you see them in your office too, I’m sure - who come in and we help with that. I really commend the people who run the food bank on a volunteer basis and do all that work, but that’s not the solution. That’s help. That’s not a solution.
To get food in the hands of people who have limited income is very important. We see a lot of seniors now who don’t have any Canada Pension, really don’t have much of an income. It’s really a problem I see in my area. I don’t know how they survive sometimes, but they manage to. People help them in the community. We help them whenever we can and we’ve got the food bank. All those have to be taken into consideration.
If we have the supply of food we need grown in the province, it’s going to be easier to help the people who are there. They’re going to be more readily available - the more products we grow locally, it’s going to be easier.
When you talk about exports - we put the price of lobsters up for individuals. Lobsters are a luxury item, and we have a surplus of them, so it’s better to export them and get the money back into the economy and create more employment for people who may not have employment - better-paid jobs than they have now, maybe, so that they can afford to buy food. It’s a balancing act with the whole thing.
Our exports have really paid off. We’re seeing higher paid wages. We’re paying more career opportunities for people in the province. We’re seeing people who left our province move back with new ideas and new approaches. It all goes together to put a package together so that we can really look after the people who need it the most in the province and guarantee we have a food supply.
That’s where I’m coming from in this. It’s so complicated to get all this to work right that we have to do it a little bit at a time unless we can find something - if you’ve got any ideas of how we can do this beyond that, I sure would love to hear them. I guarantee we would do them from there.
THE CHAIR: Thank you. We have under two minutes left.
LISA ROBERTS: Just to clarify, we’re not doing the resolution tonight?
THE CHAIR: No. We’re coming back tomorrow. I was going to say that once the time had lapsed.
One more minute.
LISA ROBERTS: I have a hard time holding on to land - like acres and hectares - in my brain in terms of how much they represent.
As we have increased, for example, grape production, which has been very much stimulated by the province, that has necessarily meant a decrease in production of other crops - I assume apples, in most cases. No? I wonder if there’s a food security analysis at all of how much of our agricultural land we want to ideally see in production for vineyards versus food crops.
THE CHAIR: Order. The time has elapsed.
We will continue with the answer tomorrow. The Minister of Agriculture will be back tomorrow for questioning.
Thank you, everyone, and good evening.
The meeting is adjourned.
[The subcommittee adjourned at 7:55 p.m.]