We always need farmers. Now farmers need us

Farming needs help right now. Much of the attention was given to the foreign workers program in recent weeks. Ottawa and provinces did the best they could to mitigate the situation. But that was just the beginning. For farmers, the worse is yet to come.

Livestock is a good place to start. To date, more than seven meat processing plants in Canada have been shutdown due to at least one employee contracting COVID-19. And more are expected. In some cases, plants had to be idle for 14 days for a thorough disinfection. Closures can be quite disruptive to the entire supply chain. But, the ones being affected the most are the farmers.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that thousands of pigs have been euthanized over the last few weeks and more are likely to suffer the same fate. Some reports suggest more than 90,000 pigs are likely to be disposed of by farmers, with no other option. Just awful. Shutdowns and slowdowns at several processing plants have created unmanageable backlogs. In hog production, there is little or no wiggle room. When an animal is ready to be harvested, it needs to go or else costs go up. Or worse, the quality of the product can be severally compromised and the animal might not meet market specifications that are heavily imposed by processors and grocers.

Ranchers out West are also being affected by meat processing woes. The production cycle is more forgiving with beef, but the industry went into this crisis with a significant backlog in many parts of the country. COVID-19 just made things worse. Keeping animals on feedlots increases costs for cattle producers. And, livestock pundits are receiving much less money for their products as well. The global pandemic has severally affected the economy and the futures markets. Prices for lean hogs have been at a 20-year low for a while. Feeder cattle values are also extremely depressed. Major economic downturns will force the world to eat less meat.

But, problems are not just in livestock. Due to restaurants closing and the entire foodservice sector shutting down, several commodities are being affected. The mushroom industry is a good example. The sector generates almost half of its revenues from restaurants. Mushroom growers in Canada are losing $400,000 a week and, as of yet, there are no COVID-19-related programs that can help them. Many other groups are affected or will be sooner or later.

The United States recently provided US$19 billion to its farmers to offset the negative affects of COVID-19. Programs to help Canadian farmers with COVID-19 such as AgriStability and AgriRecovery are either inadequate or irrelevant.

In essence, agriculture is largely misunderstood in Ottawa, and COVID-19 is making this painfully obvious. At its core, it is a very urban-centric government and the policies are reflecting it. Most COVID-19 programs implemented are needed to help keep the economy going. Though the government repeatedly states that the agri-food sector is essential, it's difficult to find any evidence.

Obviously, all commodities have different production cycles and varying needs. Each sector will likely require custom-made attention at specific times throughout the year. Agriculture is about seasons, planning and strategy to offset elements farmers cannot control. They come to accept that Mother nature herself and market conditions can't be measured or predicted. But COVID-19 has its own cruel agenda. As we try to stay safe and remain protected from COVID-19’s wrath, farmers are being impacted and the need for emergency funding is palpable like any other sector impacted by the crisis.

 From a food security perspective, stakes for the country are much higher. Canada typically loses anywhere between 5% to 7% of its farms every year. COVID-19 could potentially double that number this year, perhaps more. Emergency funding is required for farmers to offset losses. Also, farmers need assistance to adequately protect their workforce and adapt to COVID-19 measures, which includes extra housing and appropriate transportation.

 Throughout this crisis, the government often compared the virus to a burning house, and stated that it cannot spare any water. The foundation of that house, as it were, is agriculture. It is the foundation of our entire economy, which for the most part throughout this crisis has been largely forgotten.

Ottawa has looked at most issues through a public health lens since the beginning of the crisis. It was needed then. But now, continuing on this path could make our economic recovery challenging, especially in agriculture. The students’ program last week is a good example. While some provinces are desperate to get young Canadians out in the field to help farmers, Ottawa provides funding to students so they can stay home and do nothing. The students’ program only made recruitment for farmers more difficult. Due to the nature of the work, physical distancing is something farmers have done for centuries, so risks of contracting COVID-19 are extremely low for students. This is a missed opportunity.

Let’s hope real help for our farmers comes soon.


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