Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to this critical issue to farmers. It is also a critical issue to consumers of those farm products, because without farmers clearly we would be at a loss. There are not too many of us who can provide for ourselves when it comes to food substance.
As much as the bill looks at increasing debt and doubles the amount of available credit from $250,000 to $500,000 for individual farmers, as my hon. colleague from the Bloc has pointed out, at least in Quebec, they did not talk to young farmers' associations.
Across this country, the age of farmers is on the increase. Parents quite often give their children advice. Unfortunately in a lot of cases, the parents in farm families are advising their children against getting into the farm business, to not be as foolish as they were. They are not just working on the farm to try to make it viable, the subsidy that farmers give to their farm is the off-farm job they have to perform to keep their farm.
There are not too many of us who would have a second job just to keep the first job. Farmers who are passionate about being farmers are willing to subsidize their own farm by getting a second job. We hope this credit program will not drive them into getting a third job just to pay the debt.
As we look at debt loads for farmers, it is quite telling. Where were the debt loads 10, 20, 30 years ago? In 1972, the debt to income ratio was 2:1. It went to 23:1 between 2004 and 2005, which is significant. within that timeframe were the 1980s, where we saw interest rates of 18% to 22%, for those who remember it. I certainly remember it all too well, as I had to remortgage the family home when interest rates were 18% to 22%. What that meant as far as paying down the principal of the mortgage was about a penny a week.
Farmers got caught in that trap. To them it was not about paying a penny a week against the principal on the family home and farm, there were farm foreclosures across this country. Farms were lost, and farmers were driven off the land. In some cases these were farms that had been in a family for generations.
The problem with debt is that it can be an asset to a business. We should make no mistake about it, farms are small and medium size businesses, and sometimes they are very large enterprises, depending on the size of the farm. Debt is an instrument to be used as part of working the farm in the sense of what needs to be done. Most farmers have debt, whether it is for buying seeds or buying equipment, doing that capitalization.
We see the increase in debt clearly continuing from the seventies all the way through to this century. If that continues, the farmer may be caught in a period of high interest rates. The interest rates do not have to be as high as they were when I was a young person, at 18% to 22%; they simply have to move away from where they are now. The margins are so razor thin for farmers, if the debt ratio were to increase slightly, or the interest rates were to bump up by 4%, 5% or 6%, farmers would be in one heck of a lot of trouble. We, as a society, would be in even more trouble.
The bill has assets that New Democrats are willing to support to get to committee so we can do an investigation and work on the legislation. However, it does not have all the assets we need to see as a comprehensive policy for farmers across this country.
As my colleague mentioned, the vast majority of us lined up to get into the Senate courtyard last week when the pork producers were here to show our solidarity with pork producers, to show Canadians that pork is safe to consume. In fact, Canadian pork is the best pork, not only in this country or on this continent but around the world.
The pork producers were saying that they do not want another loan. The president of the Ontario Pork Producers Association said to me quite clearly, and I had been at an engagement with him not long ago, that he does not want another loan. He has had enough loans to keep him in business until the end of his days, plus some. He said that he needed some money, that he needed cash was how he put it. As a friend of mine used to tell me, cash is king. In this case, he needs cash and his producers and the producers across this country also need that cash. They do not need additional debt.
There is not a farmer across this country who does not have debt. If we ask young farmers to take on debt, we are just emulating what we have asked young people to do with their education, which is to take on debt. We have seen the success of that. We have young folks who are bankrupt before they get to their 30th birthday. I have never seen that before in my lifetime. When I was a young man, I never saw young people go into bankruptcy just because they went to university.
Heaven forbid that we should tell young farmers that this is a great career, they are anxious to get at it, then we put them into debt and bankrupt them in 10 years. That will not do anything for farmers, and it will not do anything for this country. We need to make sure when we actually provide programs to young farmers and to existing farmers who are on the farm today that indeed we are supportive of them.
The farmers are saying they already subsidize their farms. It is called off-job farming. It is amazing to me how they can still do that. But we have seen casualties. My hon. colleague from Malpeque has quoted statistics numerous times in committee and here in the House about the number of farms we see going out of business in this country. If they were other enterprises, we would call that a crisis, but because they are farms, it seems to get lost.
It seems that if it happens to the farm community, it is assumed that someone else will farm that land. I can tell the House that in my riding there is a lot of fallow land, and it is not because the farmer let it go to fallow this year; it is because there is no one there to produce the land anymore.
We have watched different places close, such as CanGro, which my hon. colleague from Malpeque mentioned. CanGro was a processing plant in St. David's, just outside of my riding on the Niagara Peninsula. It was the last canning factory east of the Rocky Mountains. It took in a great deal of the tender fruit, especially pears and peaches, from the Niagara region. With the closure of that plant just over a year ago, those farmers who were growing clingstone peaches no longer have a market.
However, there is a market for peaches in this country. Canned peaches now do not come from St. David's, Ontario; they come from China. For those who happen to be growing peaches in the Niagara Peninsula, it is pretty tough to pick those peaches, send them over to China and expect them to be canned and sent back. Those farmers are pulling their trees out.
What do they do next? They can get another loan, but they do not have a crop to pay the last loan, so they get another loan with no income. How do they encourage their young folks to take over the family farm when the young people look around and all they see is a field where those peaches once grew?
There are some folks who are trying to be creative in marketing some different things. In fact one farmer's spouse said she was going to get back in the canning business because she does not believe the majority of Ontarians know how to can products anymore. She is probably right. She is going to start up a small business, teaching folks like me and my kids how to can. So they are going to keep their peach farm.
That is an innovative idea. Only farmers could come up with those innovative ideas. They are truly the most innovative group of small business people across this land. They really want to work, and they want to work with us. We have to find a way to work with them, a way that is different from the programs we have been handing to them for the last 30 or 40 years, because clearly they have not all worked. There was some short-term relief in some of them and a bit longer-term relief in others, but we have never fixed the problem to make sure they are viable.
There are many, many reasons as to why that viability does not exist today. Some talk about international markets; some talk about the local markets. But clearly there is a disconnect between what the consumer pays at the grocery store and what the farmers receive at the end, which is basically a pittance compared to what has been taken through the system. We see too many of them going out of business because they do not make enough money at it anymore. Some are so beat up and so worn out that they get to a stage where they simply say that enough is enough.
Too often we hear people say, “Your equity is in your farm. Do not worry about it. You can sell it when you get older.”
If farmers have a viable farm in the greenbelt in Ontario, they need to keep it that way because it is the only thing they can sell it as. The problem is if they do not have any young people who want to take up farming or someone who wants to amalgamate the farm into their farm, they are stuck with a farm that is useless because they cannot sell it. All they are doing is holding it. Who are they holding it for, if it is not for the next generation or for neighbours? They might not want to lose any more money because they have already lost money or take on more debt. Farmers have built up equity through 40 years of sweat and toil on the lands to help feed Canadians. Now there is no return for those farmers, and that is a shame.
We talk about how we could help farmers. We talk to them about buying local. A couple of things happen when we buy local. Quite often we do it at the farmers' market, but we do not see any support for the farmers' markets across the country. Even though the Canadian Federation of Agriculture has asked for that support, it has not seen it yet. This would be one way to ensure our local producers could get to the farmers' market so they could make some additional money and become, hopefully, viable from a financial perspective.
However, the other side of it is the national grocery chains. Quite often there is no place for local products. There is no placement on the shelf, as they call it in the trade. Because of the numbers of outsourced products, the quantities they can bring in and the way they can control them, they get pride of place. Even though local producers have that ability to produce the quantities, we still do not get pride of place. Sometimes we do not get any place at all. It depends sometimes on the local market itself or whether the local supermarket wants to do it.
I know my hon. colleague from Malpeque knows this when it comes to potatoes. I listened to a potato producer in Ontario who said producers sold their potatoes locally only after they had travelled 300 kilometres away and 300 kilometres back. I do not quite understand that. Here is a potato producer, planting potatoes down the street from where he wants to sell them, harvesting them, bagging them, shipping them away, only to ship them back to the same place he is going to sell them. Tell me the rationale to that. Could the government explain why we need to do this? It does not make any sense. It is one thing for potatoes to come from P.E.I. to Ontario. That is a different thing. Those things do not make sense. We need to find a way to make sense for agriculture producers. They are asking for that. They are not asking for a great deal. They are simply saying they need to make things make sense for them as farmers and for us as consumers.
My colleagues have talked about how we know things are made in Canada. I know my colleague from St. Catharines has done this with his wine tasting, but I would like to survey the folks in here and ask them this. When it comes to the wines the Niagara Peninsula, do they know what “cellared” means? What does VQA mean? If we look at a cellared product, it says “cellared in Canada”. Does that mean it is a Canadian product? Are those grapes harvested, picked, pressed and put into a bottle here in Canada? The answer is no.
The grape that goes into that bottle of wine called “cellared in Canada” primarily comes from about three different places: Chile, Australia and sometimes South Africa. They are not coming from the Niagara Peninsula, or the Okanagan, or down by Pelee Island in southern Ontario. If we truly want to buy a Canadian bottle of wine from the Niagara Peninsula, with grapes grown in the Niagara Peninsula, to support those producers, those owners of those vineyards, then we need to buy VQA, Vintners Quality Alliance, which means 100% of that grape in that bottle is from Canada, not from somewhere else.
We need to ensure those things change. Canadian consumers want to find a way to protect the producer, to buy from the producer. They just do not have the ability sometimes because they do not have the knowledge. We cloud over labelling so consumers think they may have bought a bottle of wine that has been produced in Ontario, by a vineyard that they can see as they go through the Niagara Peninsula. When we tell them it is not Canadian, they are indignant. They do not believe it has come from somewhere else. They drove to that winery in the Niagara Peninsula and bought the wine directly from it. That might be so, but the juice came from somewhere else.
I talked to the president of the Ontario Grape Growers Marketing Board, Debbie Zimmerman. She brought out a bottle of cellared wine, put it on the desk and then asked me a question about it. Fortunately, I knew the difference between the two. I have a few friends who work in the industry.
The label on the one bottle had the 2010 Olympics on it. We have a cellared bottle of wine with the Canadian Olympic logo on it. That suggests to everybody that not only is it a Canadian wine, but it is also in support of the Canadian Olympics. However, it turns out, it was not.
That is a sad epitaph to what really is happening to farms across this nation. We have to find ways to support them, which we are not doing.
We talk about the credit programs, and there have been many of them over the years. My colleagues on the other side, who have been here longer than I and who have worked on the agriculture committee, have seen them come and go. In fact, some from the other side used to complain about it. Some who are now on this side used to come out with those programs and say that they were not any good. Now we have vice versa. It is funny how shoes change feet sometimes.
Ultimately it is about all of us wanting to help the farm community and those farmers. I do not think any members in the House would say that they do not want to help farmers. In fact, I do not think people on the street would say that they did not want to help farmers. The difficulty is, how do we do it?
Without a comprehensive policy, we will simply come out with band-aids. This becomes one of them. Band-aids can be good, as they help stem the flow of blood for the moment. However, ultimately they get saturated and they start to seep again, and we see other problems.
We need a comprehensive agricultural policy that addresses the needs of farmers in the broader sense, not just in the one-off sense of getting them some additional available credit, albeit needed. We need to ensure farms are not only viable right from the time they are taken over, but attractive to young people who go into farming as well.
Unfortunately, I think the average age of farmers is somewhere in the mid-50s. That is not really where we want to see farmers. We want to see that age decline by 10, 15, 20 years, so young folks coming out of agricultural colleges will get into the farm business. Ultimately we are looking to see that happen.
We are pleased the government has brought this forward. It is an enhancement of a previous program, but it needs work. The New Democrats on the agriculture committee are willing to help make that work. We are willing to ensure that our farmers will get the support they need.
Make no mistake, we are also looking at a comprehensive policy that deals with the needs of farmers, not just the immediate but the long-term needs as well. It is in our interest to ensure that happens. Ultimately, if we do not, I will end up trying to find that old rusty hoe I have somewhere in the garage and will have to start digging and competing with the rabbits to try to grow carrots.
If that does not work, I will be looking for somebody else to do it for me. In that case, I will be working for that person on a farm field somewhere. Ultimately, without farmers doing the things they do, we are in real peril. If we allow ourselves to be hostage to those who import the food to us or those exporting nations, if we rely on staple products because we are no longer doing it, then we are going to be in trouble. We do trade. We do not necessarily grow oranges here, so we import them.
At some point in time someone is going to tell us that there is not enough for us. We have seen that already. Some exporting nations have said that they have had a drought or a bad crop year so they have had to keep their products internally.
If we do not grow our own because we have not supported our farmers and have allowed them to disappear, shame on us. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we protect farmers, that we listen to them and bring forward programs that look at farming in a comprehensive way. We need to ensure that agriculture is sustainable throughout the country. We need to ensure that farmers can sustain themselves into the next century.