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New strategy in the works to grow agriculture sector

Following the success of its first Agriculture and Agri-Food Sector Strategy, York Region will develop a new strategy to help the $390-million sector navigate new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

Regional council approved the first strategy in 2017 to guide the long-term growth of the sector, which includes more than 600 farms, and 290 food and beverage manufacturers and distributors, as well as processors and restaurants.

The sector provides about 49,000 jobs, according to the 2021 Census of Agriculture. York Region farms generate more than $390 million in operating revenues and the total operating farm revenue at $2,903 per acre ranks first in the Greater Toronto Area and third in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The fact that more than half of the Holland Marsh – a specialty crop area – is in the Region contributes to those high rankings. York is also the fourth-largest food and beverage processing hub in Canada.

The new strategy is being developed at a time when the agriculture and agri-food sector is experiencing significant changes, Commissioner of Corporate Services Paul Freeman and Chief Planner Dino Basso say in their 2022 Agriculture and Agri-Food Strategy Update. Those challenges include climate change, labour shortages, supply chain disruptions, and urbanization of the region and resulting loss of farmland.

“The sector must navigate the challenges while leveraging these opportunities to remain competitive and sustainable in the long run,” according to the report. On the positive side, growing demand for local and sustainable food, technological advancements such as precision agriculture, and government funding programs provide opportunities for growth, innovation and diversification, it adds.

The first strategy, launched in 2018, achieved a key focus of engaging with stakeholders to build partnerships and leverage resources. Programs drew more than 6,500 stakeholders through more than 200 events, webinars and industry meetings in partnership with 80 organizations. York Link social media channels actively promote the agri-food sector and have generated more than 10,000,000 impressions since 2018.

The region funded several partnerships to deliver projects that supported the initial strategy. A $35,000 partnership with the York Farm Fresh Association, for example, supported York Farm Fresh, an initiative that connects York communities to locally-grown products at farms and farmers’ markets through a guide map and a multilingual mobile app.

Last year, York Region teamed up with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and Durham Region to deliver a four-part webinar series on Vertical Farming 101 that drew more than 400 agri-food businesses and stakeholders from Canadian and international audiences.

Regional staff will work with OMAFRA and local municipalities to develop the new strategy, which will be developed for consideration by Council in 2024. The strategy promises to establish an agri-food Innovation network and position York Region as the agri-food hub to do business, according to the report.

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