Agriculture’s lack of role in economic strategy is baffling

Concern about the national economy is growing as oil prices and the loonie continue to slump, sinking to levels not seen in more than a decade.

Job losses in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have all ended up on Ottawa’s radar with promises of fast-tracked infrastructure funding and a commitment from the federal government to try and diversify the economy.

The economic downturn is hard to miss. Some 62,000 people have lost their jobs in Alberta alone. On a recent trip to Edmonton, the signs of the times were reflected in auction and storage yards, full to the brim with heavy duty equipment and dozens of trailers sent down from the north.

As unemployment rises, there are demands for changes to the federal Employment Insurance program, which was heavily amended by the previous Conservative government.

Employment minister MaryAnn Mihychuck has said she will reform the system and make it more user friendly and available to those who need it.

Those yet to be announced fixes should be welcomed, but with few expecting the slump in oil prices to improve any time soon, the hunt for more permanent, long-term solutions to Canada’s economic woes has begun.

Diversifying a country’s economy is not a simple task. It takes time, creativity, investment and a willingness to turn to sectors that often run below the radar, such as agriculture.

Canada’s agriculture industry contributed $106 billion to the national economy in 2014. It is a major employer with one in eight jobs tied to the sector and 2.1 million people employed.

It’s expected that an additional 73,000 jobs will be created in the agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture industries by 2022.

One-third of them are expected to go unfilled.

Yet, as economists, policy makers and politicians look for ways to improve Canada’s economy, agriculture barely surfaces in conversation.

It’s true that many of the jobs in Canada’s agriculture industry are far from glamorous.

Most are located in rural centres, some are low-skilled and few fall into the 9-5 routine with which urban Canadians have become accustomed.

Still, the industry’s ingenuity, innovation and creativity means opportunity is endless.

For example, consider food processing, Canada’s largest manufacturing sector. The emergence of the global marketplace means Canada has the chance to tap into markets where taste and preference differs from home.

Canada’s meat packers have been trying for years to improve their value-added processing, in which cuts not popular in local markets can be reconfigured into goods more suitable for international customers.

Officials had been hoping a resurgence in Canada’s manufacturing sector as a whole would ease the fiscal pain of falling oil prices.

However, with labour shortages mounting and infrastructure deficits along the supply chain becoming harder to ignore, the ability for exporters to tap into new markets is slipping away.

Value-added processing is being set aside as plants struggle to fill shifts and meet current demand.

The vacancies are striking. At last count, Canada’s beef industry was short 8,000 workers, while the meat industry reported an additional 1,000 vacancies.

Many of those jobs require specific skills — husbandry knowledge, butcher and meat cutting, familiarity with heavy duty equipment — which are rarely mentioned in the average high school career course, college advertisement or federal skills training commercial.

People simply don’t think about agriculture as a career choice.

As the gap between the farm and people’s forks grows, so too does the appreciation for what kind of work is available on Canadian farms and their supply chain.

Today’s farmer is a businessperson, a marketing agent, a mechanic, an environmentalist, which are all skills that many Canadians have but may not think are applicable to agriculture.

Convincing Canadians to consider agriculture as a career will take time. Changing stereotypes and modernizing the romanticized image that folks have of the industry cannot be done overnight.

However, it’s a conversation that must be had and one that policy-makers would be smart to take the lead on as they try to navigate the muddy economic waters ahead.

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