Sylvain Charlebois

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We always needed farmers. Now, with COVID-19, they need us. Farming needs real help, right now.

Plenty of attention has been given to the foreign workers program in recent weeks. The federal government and the provinces have done the best they could to mitigate the situation. But that was just the beginning. For farmers, the worst is yet to come.

Livestock is good place to start. To date, at least seven Canadian meat processing plants have shut down due to at least one employee contracting COVID-19. More should be expected. In some cases, plants had to be idle for 14 days for thorough disinfection. Closures can be quite disruptive to the entire supply chain. But the ones being affected most are farmers.

Bloomberg recently reported that thousands of pigs have been euthanized over the last few weeks and more are likely to suffer that fate. Some reports suggest more than 90,000 pigs are likely to be disposed of by farmers, who have no other option. That’s just awful.

Shutdowns and slowdowns at several processing plants have created unmanageable backlogs. In hog production, there’s little or no wiggle room. When an animal is ready to be harvested, it needs to go or else costs go up. Or the quality of the product can be severally compromised and the animal might not comply with the market specifications rigorously imposed by processors and grocers.

Cattle ranchers in Western Canada 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 spanning many parts of the country. COVID-19 just made things worse.

Keeping animals too long in feedlots increases costs for cattle producers. And livestock producers are receiving much less money for their products.

The global pandemic has severely affected the futures markets. Prices for lean hogs have been at a 20-year low for a while. Feeder cattle values are also extremely depressed. In general, major economic downturns force consumers around the world to eat less meat.

And the problems aren’t just in the livestock sector. As a result of restaurants closing and the entire food service sector constricting, 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 from government that can help them. Many other groups are affected by the pandemic or will be sooner or later.

The United States government recently provided close to $19 billion to its farmers to offset the negative effects of COVID-19. In Canada, programs such as AgriStability and AgriRecovery are inadequate or irrelevant when it comes to dealing with COVID-19.

Agriculture is largely misunderstood in Ottawa and COVID-19 makes it painfully obvious. At its core, this is a very urban-centric government and its policies reflect that. Most COVID-19 programs implemented by the federal government are needed to help keep the economy going. And the government has repeatedly said the agri-food sector is essential – but 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 of the year. Agriculture is about seasons, planning and strategy to offset elements that farmers can’t control. They come to accept that nature and market conditions can never be measured or predictable.

But COVID-19 has its own unpredictable, cruel agenda. As we’re trying to stay safe and remain protected from its wrath, farmers are being impacted. The need for emergency funding is just as palpable as it is in any sector impacted by the crisis.

From a food security perspective, the stakes for Canada are extremely high. Canada typically loses from five to seven per cent of its farms every year. COVID-19 could double that loss this year – perhaps more.

Emergency funding is required for farmers to offset losses. And farmers need help to protect their workforce and adapt to COVID-19 measures. That should include extra housing and appropriate transportation.

Agriculture is the foundation of Canada’s entire economy. Unfortunately, that fact has largely been forgotten during this crisis. The federal government has looked at most issues through a public health lens since this crisis began and that has been important.

For example, as many provinces have desperately looked for ways to get young Canadians out in the field to help farmers, Ottawa provided funding to students so they can stay home and do nothing. That only made farm worker recruitment more difficult.

Physical distancing is something farmers have done for centuries, so the risks of students contracting COVID-19 while working on a farm are extremely low. This is a missed opportunity.

If the federal government continues on its current path, economic recovery will be very challenging, especially in agriculture. Let’s hope real help for our farmers comes soon.

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