By Lethbridge Herald on April 16, 2020.
While the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is sounding the alarm over potential threats to food security and calling for a federal emergency fund to be set up as a financial backstop for farmers impacted by rising costs and growing market uncertainty associated with COVID-19, local farmers are largely going about their business and getting ready for the spring planting season.
In a nationally broadcast press conference on Thursday, CFA president Mary Robinson sounded the alarm about the difficulties farmers are facing such as rising costs, labour uncertainty, market turmoil and slowdowns at meat processing and other food processing facilities.
“As farmers,” she said, “we have carefully considered this message today. We do not want to create panic.
“At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to sound the alarm about the realities Canadian farmers are facing. In times of economic crisis and global uncertainty, Canadians have always been able to depend on farmers to do what we do best — grow food.
“Today, Canadian farmers need immediate, meaningful help from our federal government to continue fulfilling that responsibility. Agriculture, the foundation of our overall food supply is, at this very moment in time, at a tipping point. If we do not, as a nation, address the rising challenges immediately, Canadian consumers could see a decrease in the amount and variety of food at their local grocery stores as well as higher prices, in the months ahead.”
Robinson acknowledged her message was an attempt to get out of ahead of the situation, and pre-empt a possible food crisis that could be coming. She sought concrete reassurances from the federal government, on behalf of farmers, that an emergency fund would be put in place to offset the costs and risks farmers are facing heading into spring seeding.
“Canadian farmers are feeling increasingly stressed,” she said. “In fact, right now, some farmers are so worried about the mounting challenges they are strongly considering halting their farming operations altogether. This is a potential tragedy. One Canada cannot afford.”
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the government does recognize the importance of the agriculture sector and has provided a substantial amount of assistance already. She said Ottawa will look at the request.
“As our food producers and supply chains continue to adjust, we welcome recommendations provided by the sector as we work together to respond to the exceptional situation we are in,” Bibeau said in a statement.
“Farmers and food businesses are doing a huge service to feed the nation and they can be confident that their government has their back.”
Locally, Alberta Federation of Agriculture president and Enchant area farmer Lynn Jacobson said while certain sectors of the local ag industry like potato producers and beef producers were already feeling the effects of COVID-19, particularly on the food-processing side of the equation, crop farmers getting ready for seeding have been able to get their spring inputs, for the most part, and are waiting for the unseasonably cool spring weather to break before heading out into their fields.
“We (at AFA) have been advising people to get as many inputs and store them on your farm as you can,” he explained. “For some people that works out, but for other people it can’t, and they have to rely on their local dealer bringing them in. Our local dealer in Enchant said they thought they would be able to keep up for fertilizer and those inputs because most of our stuff comes out of Carseland anyways, and on that end of it they weren’t that concerned.”
Jacobson acknowledged many farmers are feeling anxiety about the year ahead, but so far haven’t noticed too many disruptions in the ag service sector. Supplies are taking longer to get with COVID-19 social distancing protocols in place, but Jacobson said it is pretty similar overall to what most Albertans are already facing in grocery store lineups.
“They are handling it as best as they can,” he said, “but there is a reduction in truck traffic. And air freight delivery has really gone down. Next-day delivery on air freight just isn’t happening anymore.”
On a more positive note, Jacobson said it finally appears, after a fairly difficult shipping season to start the year due to rail blockades and the like, grain is moving well again.
“Right now shipments out of the country for grain and oilseeds are going fairly well, and CN Rail and CP are ahead of schedule,” he stated.
As long as grain is moving, elevators will still be calling for more supply from local farmers. The Port of Vancouver and also appears to have seen a reduction in ships waiting for delivery of products, meaning Canadian grain and other crops are more easily making their way to international buyers, said Jacobson.
Even with things moving well on that front finally, Jacobson acknowledged the future worries many farmers may be facing. Finding chemicals and machine parts, many of which come from outside the country, later in season may become an issue, he said. Availability of labour remains an ongoing concern, he admitted, and also what new employee COVID-19 safety protocols might mean to overall production and costs.
“All these new protocols all come with an effect on local food production and the price,” he said. “If things start to break down a bit on our production lines, the price of food (for consumers) is going to go up.”
Jacobson is the first to admit he doesn’t really know what will happen in the 2020 crop year, but states the anxiety out there on the farm is real. To cope he said most farmers he knows are focusing on the immediate task ahead and the upcoming spring seeding time.
In that respect, the late spring is of greater short-term concern to those who plant crops for a living than their latent worries about COVID-19, he acknowledged.
“For us down here (in southern Alberta) it is not quite as pressing because we generally have a longer growing season,” he said. “Those who haven’t yet got their crop off, like the potato and beet growers, their crops still have to be worked down. But last year at this time we were seeding; so obviously people are getting anxious.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
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