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Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Lea, shown in this 2013 file photo, has launched a tour of several U.S. states touting the benefits of free trade.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

As Canada prepares for trade talks with the United States and Mexico, Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Food has launched a tour of several U.S. states touting the benefits of free trade.

The push follows a meeting Premier Kathleen Wynne held last week with representatives of the province's food and agricultural sector, including the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Egg Farmers of Ontario and frozen-food maker Morrison Lamothe Inc.

"It's an opportunity for all of us to remind each other that trade across both borders creates economic wealth not only here in Ontario, but in those six states, and more broadly the 20 states, that Ontario is deeply integrated with," said Jeff Leal, the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

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Mr. Leal said in an interview that the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) is good for farmers and companies on both sides of the border. The streamlined food inspection rules and border-clearance regulations sped up cross-border shipments and allowed just-in-time deliveries, which is vital for perishable food and products with a shelf life.

"Any time you bring in measures that may affect the border, it always creates challenges, particularly in the agri-food processing area," Mr. Leal said.

The United States buys three-quarters of all Canadian exports, and is the biggest buyer of Canada's agricultural products.

Ontario, which produces much of Canada's corn and soybeans and is home to a large part of the country's food manufacturing, has a lot at stake in coming talks to renegotiate NAFTA. Two-way agri-food trade between Ontario and the United States reached $28.8-billion in 2016, according to the provincial government.

Rob Gamble, chief economist at Grain Farmers of Ontario, which represents 28,000 growers of corn, soybeans and other field crops on six-million acres, said agricultural free trade has been a plus for both sides of the border, and he hopes it continues.

"The way it is operating right now is beneficial to both countries," Mr. Gamble said by phone.

Exports of farm products to the United States soared under NAFTA. But Mr. Gamble noted Ontario imported more grains and oilseeds from there ($435-million) last year than it exported ($235-million). At the same time, Ontario food processors exported $3.6-billion to the United States while importing $2.4-billion worth of products made with Ontario wheat, corn and other grains.

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"I think [NAFTA is ] very important," Mr. Gamble said. "And I think the point to make is it's important for both countries. We want to make sure governments are aware of the significance of agricultural trade and that they maintain that integration and the flow back and forth across the border."

Mr. Leal said the federal government has not indicated to him which items it intends to focus on in negotiations. But he said he will defend Canada's supply-managed dairy system, which U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized.

Mr. Gamble said he does not want to see the tariff-free status of crops used in any "horse trading" or bargaining over more controversial issues, such as dairy.

"They're our customers," Mr. Gamble said of the province's dairy producers. "We certainly value the business they have. Whether it be supply management, whether it be some other issue related to NAFTA, we want to make sure that agriculture in general be allowed to continue under the free trade that we have now."

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