Government urged to recognize ag’s vital role

As the stress on producers mounts, governments respond with financial measures

GFO is considering urging its 28,000 members to take possession of inputs they can store or those not requiring storage so suppliers know now what is in short supply.

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COVID-19-induced food hoarding has brought in to sharp relief the value of the agriculture industry for many, including the government.

“We’ve positioned (our concerns) as a food security issue and that’s been heard loud and clear (by the government),” said Keith Currie. “We play a very key role in helping people get through this pandemic.”

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) president has been in constant contact with key members of the provincial and federal governments to ensure producers are able to meet the nutritional needs of consumers.

Currie said members are concerned about access to a healthy labour force as it applies to the Temporary Foreign Worker program or the local workforce.

“The big concern is having to shut down (processing facilities) because someone comes up positive,” said Currie, adding that would also, create an animal welfare issue.

The livestock industries can’t shut down in an instant without serious ramifications, said Currie. Those in the turkey and broiler industries could endure devastating losses if a plant shut down because they run on an eight, 10 or 12-week production schedule.

“We might be talking euthanasia here. Yes, there may be some kind of package, either insurance or some other kind of package, to compensate if that has to happen,” Currie said. “But that takes that takes a real mental toll on people as well.”

The OFA said a lot of the messaging going out to producers provincially and federally is around mental wellness and encouraging them to reach out before they reach a crisis point.

He said the impact of the terrible growing season in 2019; the geopolitical impact on the markets, the railway strike and blockages and now COVID19 has not been lost.

“This is just another piling-on that is not under their control – eventually there’s going to be that straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said. “We’re trying to be very cognizant of emphasize to people – make sure you take care of yourself and look after look after those around you.”

Currie said there are concerns this might be the issues that pushes a person over the edge which is why it’s extra important to check in with neighbours by phone, video or through carefully maintained social distancing.

“Please know you’re not alone, please reach out to people,” he said. “If you’re in immediate danger, call 911. Let’s not let this get to you.”

He said all levels of government are working diligently to ensure the agriculture industry is able to keep the cash flowing by keeping the border open to commercial traffic and working on solving the TFW labour issue without negatively impacting safety.

Markus Haerle, Grain Farmers of Ontario chair, said his members are concerned with accessing necessary inputs at the volume required when they are needed this planting season.

His supplier is already anticipating a shortfall of nitrogen through the season.

“That’s scary because I’m going to put a crop in the ground. I won’t have nitrogen to top-dress that crop,” he said. “I will only have maybe a third or half the crop in the fall if I don’t put that on at the right time.”

Haerle said there are crop protection products currently on shelves but he’s uncertain if there will be enough to meet each individual farm’s needs.

The GFO is considering urging its 28,000 members to take possession of inputs they can store or those not requiring storage so suppliers know now what is in short supply. It could help avoid a last-minute rush for necessary items as supplies become stressed to the maximum, he said.

Approximately 60 per cent of the seeds Ontario producers require are in stock, however the remaining 40 per cent, which are sourced from the United States, South America and offshore, could disrupt cropping plans for 2020.

“We have to produce 100 per cent of our needs because it’s not just what the short-term impact is,” he said. “It’s the long-term impact to the production and to the food security of Canadians, the consumer, for the 2020 and 2021 cropping year.”

Haerle is encouraging the governments to recognize the true cost of the agriculture industry and to make its viability a priority.

“Make sure that it actually stays viable and strong, and that there’s actually a food supply coming,” he said. “Because there’s no guarantee that other countries around the world will be able to supply the shortfall of the Canadian industry, if there is one.”

Currie is more optimistic about Ontario’s position, as long as the border remains open to allow trade between Canada and the United States.

“The products flowing into other countries is still going maintain somewhat regular flow,” he said. “It doesn’t look like, at this point, that we’re getting shut down in markets too much.”

Currie added ensuring containers are properly disinfected and deliveries are handled with a high level of COVID-19 safety protocols will be part of ensuring everyone’s safety.

The government’s financial assistance measures announced on March 18 will also help producers to weather the storm.

“The government is listening to us,” he said. “We’re happy they’re understanding we play a very key role in helping people get through this pandemic.”

Currie said finding solutions for dispersing funds to producers is ongoing. He’s hopeful the programs can prevent situations where farmers need money and insurance isn’t covering the losses. Currently, they are looking at utilizing existing federal-provincial-territorial business relationship management tools like AgriRecovery, a disaster relief framework to help producers recover from natural disasters, or AgInvest.

Haerle appreciates the financial support but said it’s a short-term fix that could have long-term implications for producers.

“They’re going to offer interest-free loans like they have done to the canola industry last year? Those farmers that took those loans are asked to pay them back this spring,” he said. “Now, how can they pay that back? We’re into this pandemic now. Are they going to extend those loans again?”

He would rather see the government remove the Risk Management Program (RMP) cap and fully fund the program, which is currently funded 40 per cent by the province.

“We’re asking the (federal) government to fund that program 100 per cent without a cap to cover those shortfalls now,” he said.

If a claim doesn’t trigger a payment based on the cost of production, the senior levels of government need to incorporate market shortfall and suppressed prices, higher input costs due to lack of access and the changing cost of labour into the equation.

“It’s time they look at it at this point of the urgency,” he said.

The GFO has been searching for solutions to these issues even as COVID-19 changes the playing field on a daily basis, he said.

“I’m just hoping that the government actually listens to the stakeholders –nobody thought a week ago that we would be where we are today,” he said. “And nobody knows when this is going to come to an end because of the unknown environment of where we’re going.”

Haerle said if there was a silver lining to be found, it might be consumers gaining a greater appreciation for the food Canadian farmers produce daily.

“(What) we’re trying to do is produce the best food possible to the consumer . . . to buy every day in the stores,” he said. “We want to make sure that’s readily available to them at all times.”

Currie said commodity organization, government officials and general farm organizations are continually relaying information out to members within the farm community.

“Keep watching for those announcements, call your local rep if you if you have a question,” said Currie. “But just know that everybody along the whole chain is working . . . to make sure we have as uninterrupted business as possible.”

It may seem that nothing is happening, but the conversations are ongoing as industry and government work together to craft the best plan of attack, he said.

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