By Peggy Brekveld, Vice President, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
We’re all living in a new reality as the changes and challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to play out. Last week, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) checked in with our members to find out how they expect this pandemic will impact their farm businesses. Already, 74% of members surveyed online indicated they are anticipating change in their operations due to COVID-19.
Farmers are known for their resilience and perseverance. But even before COVID-19 hit, farmers were coping with a tough year, with multiple rail disruptions, a shortage of meat processing capacity and uncertain global trade and market access.
OFA members are now bracing themselves for continued uncertainty – 78% expect lost revenue as a result of value chain disruptions, 73% are anxious about their inability to conduct business as usual and 69% expect reduced cash flow. “It is difficult to invest in your business today to ensure you have a good harvest in the fall when you are lacking cash flow/sales now, and potentially weakened demand in the fall,” stated a survey participant.
When asked about their top concerns on how COVID-19 will impact their farm businesses, financial impact, decrease in consumer spending and a potential global recession were the top three. At 53%, cash flow was listed as the most immediate financial need to maintain farm business operations, followed by 37% who expect they will need a temporary pause or rescheduling of loan repayments and 25% who will be seeking information on crisis budget planning.
Labour issues have already impacted some Ontario farmers with disruptions to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. OFA’s survey revealed that 52% of respondents that use the program said that potential delays or cancellations to the program would negatively impact their operations. One member wrote, “If we do not have access to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), our farm will have a very difficult time surviving this emergency. The whole Canadian agricultural industry, especially horticulture, will have extreme difficulty.”
Business interruptions are already being felt on Ontario farms, as many members who responded to the survey noted inputs and on-farm services, like feed and agronomy consultations are being disrupted. One farmer commented, “We are concerned when field work begins, will we be able to access seed, fertilizer, fuel and equipment dealerships in case of machinery repairs?”
Farmers are also experiencing problems getting their products to market, with one third of survey participants reporting an interruption in delivering finished products. More than half expect these disruptions to continue, with many farmers unsure about what the future holds.
These challenges are compounded with poor quality internet and telecommunications in rural Ontario. More than three-quarters of farmers responding said they cannot operate business as usual during COVID-19 due to poor rural internet and telecommunications quality. Survey respondents also noted the high cost of rural internet, including overage charges or lack of internet providers, that restricts their ability to work and conduct business.
You, our members are speaking up, through this survey and the many calls, emails and text that we have received. OFA is listening, and our work on your behalf continues, even in this crisis.
Since this survey came out, OFA has worked hard to ensure that the entire food value chain was included in the list of businesses essential to Ontario. There have been steps forward in our ongoing efforts to bring SAWP workers to our farms in a safe and appropriate way. Resources, including contact links to government programs and even mental health assistance, are on our website. Even in this time of social distancing, you are not alone.
Thanks to the more than 350 survey participants who shared their concerns and farm business situations. We will continue to evaluate the responses and share them with industry and government, as decisions impacting our farm businesses are made throughout this pandemic situation. OFA will use this survey as a benchmark with a plan to launch a second survey in coming weeks. We welcome all members to provide their input and feedback on the next COVID-19 survey.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is also conducting weekly surveys for farmers across the country to identify issues and impacts on farm businesses caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
OFA is actively listening to our member concerns to gain a better understanding of the issues being dealt with on-farm. OFA is advocating for the agri-food sector to mitigate the negative affects this pandemic is having on Ontario farm families and their businesses.