By Leo Glavine
MLA - Kings West
Governments that exercise the fifth year option of their mandate have a dismal record based on Canadian election outcomes since the Second World War. A further review of those days and months of governments in their fifth year reveal panic and unrealistic promises.
The handling of the strawberry virus by the NDP government is a case in point. They have completely mismanaged the virus challenges being experienced by strawberry growers throughout Nova Scotia. In fact, the Minister of Agriculture's response to date has been insufficient and his previous inaction has further compounded the state of the current crisis with approximately 90 per cent of farms exhibiting at least one of two harmful viruses. A similar problem emerged about 50 years ago and is considered a once in a 100 years phenomenon.
Government has known about the viruses' existence and there devastating impact to strawberry crops for quite some time. It is unfortunate the minister did not immediately work with strawberry growers to eradicate the affected plants to protect the future of the strawberry industry which accounts for $20 million in economic activity each year. Half of that activity comes from the export plant market where Nova Scotia growers have captured a strong market share. Their product is also highly regarded by US southern growers and plants bearing a virus could be detrimental to the future of the industry.
Mark Sawler, president of Horticultural Nova Scotia, and Dennis Boudreau, president of the NS Federation of Agriculture said Aug. 14: "if this issue is not resolved and plants are not destroyed, it will cause a problem beyond the province.
The industry brought forth a proposal that would protect future plants and the nursery industry, but government decided that an interest-free loan program would be the answer. Can you imagine placing farmers further in debt? I am truly frustrated by the government's minimal offer of assistance to address the crisis and the minister's attempts to quiet local growers vocalizing concerns about the state of the industry and government's meager response. What the provincial government offered growers was not assistance, rather a cold, negligent response that will do very little to help growers destroy the virus and protect crops and harvests in future years. Government's response was made in a panic to get by the election call and campaign.
Further panic was witnessed recently when the minister sent word to the agriculture federation that the Homegrown Success program was going to review additional funds. Levels of soil management and farm safety funding in the recent agriculture budget were widely criticized. Aug. 6, soil management through effective tile drainage and soil amendment practices received a $400,000 boost. Government should not have to be told that farm safety need to be a priority and properly funded. A panic attack just days before an election call led to an additional $30,000 for this all important work to make safer farms for families and their employees.
While the handling of the strawberry virus has revealed a "let's get by the election" approach. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed immediate responses and plans for the future in dealing with government deficiencies that should have been addressed months and perhaps years ago.
Government must now admit that their original proposal will not even keep the industry in "hot idle mode" (Port Hawkesbury Mill). Without a program the industry remains at risk of re-infection of new plantings indefinitely.
Nursery sales are expected to drop to $7 million range in 2013 from $10 million and we risk a total loss of this export section. While the minister is encouraging us to buy local strawberries without controlling the viruses, smaller volumes of lower quality fruit will be the norm in our province and lower priced, lower quality US berries will push those growers who survive the crisis out of business.
In the last days of this government I hope they will match our commitment to act swiftly to develop an actionable and properly funded response to the crisis. I want strawberries to be a part of our local food basket in 2014 and beyond.