COVID creates problems for prairie farmers

Man. research manager worries about input supply chains, child care disruptions and threats to older farmers

The COVID-19 pandemic is a Friday the 13th scenario that threatens spring seeding and supply chains for inputs, a crop specialist says.

It also puts at risk the storehouse of knowledge kept by farmers, most of whom are up in years and most vulnerable to the illness, said Scott Chalmers, manager of the Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization in Melita, Man.

The good news, he said, is that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has deemed agriculture an essential service, which will go a long way to helping Canadian producers maintain a level of normalcy, provided the border stays open to trade goods.

“The Americans … are a team and for the most part everybody gets it all done,” Chalmers said.

In addition to allowing farmers to work despite restrictions, American collaboration between business and government to supply medical equipment and seek a vaccine is vitally important.

Meanwhile, the average age of Canadian farmers is about 54 with many well above that, and “that’s right up there for the danger zone for COVID, too.”  

Chalmers said a great loss would occur if these older farmers were to suffer a reduction in numbers, given their experience and knowledge.

Some farmers are good teachers but others are more reserved, so even those with children and hired hands haven’t necessarily been able to share all they know, he added.

Chalmers said the supply chain is another concern. Most seed is in place and is warehoused, he said. Many fertilizers are not, however, and need truckers to transport them. Border concerns or trucker availability could interfere with flows of such essential goods.

Chalmers, who has children, said another issue is that schools are closed, meaning children are at home and have to be supervised by a parent, who might otherwise be on the land, or taken with a working parent and possibly put at risk from tractors or other farming hazards. It all requires greater vigilance.

Cash flow problems are another matter.

“I don’t have a good feeling about it,” he said, based on talking to farmers who are finding it difficult to pay for inputs after a late wet harvest last fall and much crop still in the field.

Many spouses are also being laid off, such as his wife’s brother, an accountant in Regina.

This loss of employment could eventually cut into demand for things such as beef.

“Nobody’s eating high-end steaks,” he said.

Dennis Laycroft of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has told the Western Producer he’s confident the beef chain is implementing good practices and protocols to maintain product flows and says demand remains strong for now.

However, farmers markets, where beef and other products are also sold, are under threat of closure, given limits on group size and distance protocols.

In Thunder Bay, Ont., the farmers market has been deemed an essential service and allowed to stay open, which the National Farmers’ Union is fighting for across the country.

At Chalmers’ research farm in Melita, two of his office assistants are pregnant and one has a child with asthma, so the worries are close to home. They are trying to stay home as much as possible as requested by authorities to limit the virus’s spread, Chalmers said.

Routine matters such as soil tests have been delayed because of the pandemic and likely won’t be ready in time for seeding.

However, Chalmers is confident in a positive outcome.

“As long as we all keep our distance, we should manage through this,” he said.

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