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Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau rises during Question Period, May 26, 2020, in Ottawa.

The Canadian Press

Farmers and other agri-food businesses in Ontario can now apply for federal funding aimed at keeping workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal government said Tuesday that $11.6 million can now be accessed to help with improvements for Ontario farms such as building physical barriers for worker separation, upgrading HVAC systems and improving handwashing facilities.

It’s part of a $35 million investment recently announced by Ottawa to help the country’s agricultural sector weather the pandemic. Although some provinces are leaving it to the federal government to administer the program, in Ontario the provincial government is responsible for delivering the funds.

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“Everyone needs to feel safe and supported when they go to work,” Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal minister of agriculture and agri-food, said when detailing the funding Tuesday.

The federal support is in addition to $15 million from the Ontario government announced in June to support workplace safety improvements in the sector.

“There could be some places where they didn’t get (improvements) done in the summer because it was too expensive,” said Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. “We don’t want that to be the case.”

Hardeman said that the funding is being made available now to help prepare for the 2021 growing and harvesting seasons.

The amount farmers can claim for preventive expenses, including workplace modifications and personal protective equipment will double to $15,000, the province said.

The program also includes a new category for small capital projects of up to $100,000 for housing modifications, workplace modifications and equipment to allow greater physical distancing for workers.

Keith Currie, the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said his industry is working with the provincial government to get improved safety protocols in place.

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“That’s why this announcement is so important, so we can enact some of those measures,” said Currie.

Agri-food workers – especially in the Windsor-Essex region – were hit hard by the pandemic’s first wave, with several outbreaks on farms.

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