With 98 per cent of businesses in Canada employing less than 100 people, it really is true that, cliché or not, small business is the backbone of the country.
In Ontario, agriculture and food already employs some 800,000 people. Its presence is clear.
But once businesses are up and running, they then have to grow. When they do, the economy grows. That’s one way jobs are created. When business stagnates, the economy does the same, or worse.
New business is a shining star in economic growth. It’s exciting and it creates a positive business culture and environment.
Which makes me wonder why a measure directly related to small business growth in the 2017 Ontario budget slipped by with nary a whisper. That measure is the drive towards a legislative framework designed to make it easier to open on-farm businesses.
If it wasn’t obvious in the budget itself, Jeff Leal, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, underlined it in his budget-related remarks that followed.
“Our government will be introducing a legislative framework that would give municipalities the flexibility needed to support farmers with eligible on-farm processing and retail activities, by lowering property tax rates, boosting economic viability and fostering productivity and innovation,” he said.
The timing of this initiative, as well as the initiative itself, deserves a look from rural Ontario.
First, organizations such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) have urged the province to invest in rural Ontario to grow jobs here. Despite their distaste for the premier, they share a goal with her – that is, to create new jobs and increase exports to help grow the economy.
On-farm businesses can help with that goal. The job numbers from them are not singularly awesome. But collectively – and with some roadblocks out of the way — they contribute to the drive towards more employment opportunities in rural Ontario, and more diversity for farmers.
If several farmers go from zero on-farm business jobs to even a handful of them, it adds up.
Growing rural and on-farm business addresses a foundation of rural tourism, as well. The non-farm population has an increasing interest – a fascination perhaps, by some – in where food comes from. So, while they’re having a rural experience, such as a drive out to the country, give them a reason to stop by the farm —offer them something to buy and something to do.
On-farm shopping is not a new concept. Farm-fresh eggs, maple syrup, and assorted produce often entice travellers to drive up the lane. So to do corn mazes and other such activities.
But as far as red tape goes, taking on-farm sales to the next level has never been easy.
“Farmers trying to do this would get whacked by a municipal assessment authority,” says Leal. “It was a disincentive. Making it easier for on-farm business would help family farms and job growth.”
Leal is bullish on rural job creation, and he knows agriculture can help. He calls the sector’s innovation and productivity the brightest spot on the horizon for agriculture, noting that 1.4 per cent of the population is now looking after the food needs of the other 98.6 per cent.
As farmers continue to diversify, on-farm business seems like a natural, provided impediments are reduced or removed. Rural Ontario believes it’s made its needs clear, and had mixed reviews about whether the 2017 budget was going to help open the door for business. The OFA, in fact, said it was disappointed the budget didn’t grow agriculture.
However, it’s a mistake to close the door on potential opportunities like this.