Labour, inputs a concern as federal COVID-19 response for ag sector remains unclear

Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (AAFC) says it understands, “the importance of a stable labour force enabling Canadian food supply, and are committed to giving Canadians and businesses the support they need” but is not offering further details on support for farmers as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

A joint emergency response committee that involves key industry and government stakeholders has been formed to help respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) sits on that committee, and says there is a concern over how an interruption of the flow of goods and people resulting from COVID-19 will impact the sector.

“As people make decisions as to what they’re going to plant, you know, maybe it’ll mean that they’re decisions are that lower value, less labor intensive crops will be planted as opposed to the opposite,” she said.

AAFC Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a statement the government is working around the clock to respond to health and economic impacts of the global pandemic.

“The continued movement of agri-food products and inputs, both at home and abroad, and the ongoing delivery of essential food-delivery services, are essential to Canada’s plan to manage COVID-19,” said Bibeau.

No clarity has thus far been provided on what qualifies as essential food-delivery services.

Erin Gowriluk, executive director of Grain Growers Canada (GGC) said she is glad Bibeau’s office is keeping in contact with sector stakeholders, but that her organization is not one of them.

“We are hopeful that the conversations that will come from those conversations with sector stakeholders will be some concrete actions to offer meaningful support to farmers across the country,” she said.

GGC is currently monitoring three specific areas in the immediate coming days: the potential impact of accessing inputs needed to get crops in the ground this Spring, the continued movement of goods and assurances enough labour will be available.

Many concerns have been raised over access to labour given the government’s decision to close Canada’s borders to people.

That called into question the immediate future of the Temporary Foreign Worker program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, which brings in people from Mexico and Caribbean countries to help in the production of commodities such as fruits, vegetables, bovine, dairy, poultry and swine.

“Probably one of the details that didn’t make it up on the list of giving thought to might have been the temporary foreign worker program,” said Robinson. “The reliance that Canadian producers have on accessing those people, and those people are reliant on coming to Canada in order to pay their bills, and it’s how they exist at home.”

“That’s a big concern, putting the crop in the ground is just around the corner,” she said.

Lobbying for some concessions on the programs are being undertaken throughout the week.

A statement from Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture Ernie Hardeman said he has been “actively engaged” in trying to find solutions with Bibeau’s office.

“We recognize that seasonal agricultural workers are critical for Ontario’s farmers and food processors,” said the statement, which added his office is in daily communication with Bibeau’s.

CFA is circulating surveys to continuously monitor concerns of its membership.

“Just like government not anticipating the temporary foreign worker implications for agriculture, there’s things that we’re not thinking of right now that are going to crop up,” she said. “We’ll continue to bring that information from our members directly up to the Ministers table. And hopefully, all that information will help form good decision making and make the best of a bad situation for everybody.”

She added that the federal cabinet as a whole needs to “recognize that agriculture needs to be, beyond actually controlling and fighting COVID-19, most likely the top priority for Canada should be food,”

“I just would love to have cabinet open their ears a little bit more in their mind to how this is going to play out, and what we need to make sure that we don’t let kind of go by the wayside.”

Gowriluk and the GGC contend the federal government would be in a better position to support farmers now if it had previously made long-called for changes to Business Risk Management programs, particularly AgriStability.

They, like many other agricultural groups, continue to call for support to be increased and reference margins to be returned to 85 per cent from the current 70 per cent.

“That is the most effective program to get the level of support, to a meaningful level of support to farmers who need it the most,” she said. “But those changes were not made.”

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