Some COVID-19 changes to grain sector likely permanent

Delivery points now have drive-through service. | File photo

Lots of things have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shock has forced businesses everywhere, including the grain business, to rapidly adapt.

Just think about how different it is to deliver grain today. In some ways it might be better, if you don’t like getting out of the truck. Many processes have been streamlined and unnecessary steps removed. Delivery points now have drive-through service.

In other ways it’s worse.

“No coffee. No bathroom. No cookies. Tougher to do business person to person,” noted one farmer when I asked on Twitter what changes farmers had seen when delivering grain.

Another noted: “Our right to inspect our own sample has been taken away.”

There’s a vast array of changes that have taken place, some probably generally good and some maybe generally bad.

The Canadian Grain Commission relaxed some inspection requirements that threatened export shipments. Zoom meetings and conferences saved events and opened them up for much wider audiences. Banks became flexible with loan repayments.

Hundreds of little adaptations have occurred.

How many of these changes will stick? Each adaptation will probably have its own stickiness. If something works well and doesn’t bring vexing complications, it could survive the transition to the post-pandemic “peacetime.”

If something works today but is problematic outside of an emergency, then maybe it won’t survive.

COVID-19 has had the economic impact of a war, and all major wars see huge changes to the way the economy operates. Some of those changes, such as rationing and government dictation, disappear quickly once peace comes. Others, such as moves to bigger, better, more efficient production tend to remain. Some changes are temporary. Others are evolutionary.

More important than any particular set of adaptations in how we do business is the question of whether we are able to maintain the spirit of co-operation and collaboration, flexibility and creativity that has defined the way many have dealt with the pandemic.

“Despite the challenge, the pandemic has inspired collaboration and innovation across disciplines… each working together to find timely solutions to very, very complex problems,” said Harpreet Kochhar, associate deputy minister for Health Canada, in a panel discussion hosted by the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute.

Another senior federal official said they had seen more digital evolution during the pandemic than during the decade before it.

Continuing that spirit of collaboration is going to be necessary for farmers to be able to help drive Canada’s agrifood industry to the heights it needs to boost not only farmers’ bottom lines, but also Canada’s goal of making agriculture the source of major growth for this country’s export economy.

Sometimes, once a crisis has passed, people fall back into old comfortable ruts. Other interests will want to re-impose previous conditions if they feel the pandemic changes have hurt them, regardless of the overall impact on the agrifood system, good or bad.

Farmers obviously need to be able to see their own grain samples. Whatever has happened in the short run to confound that at some delivery points, it’s hard to see that change lasting.

And coffee, cookies and a friendly chat will undoubtedly return to delivery points across the Prairies as soon as health rules and company policies allow for it.

But if we’re lucky, the spirit of co-operation and collaboration, of flexibility and creativity, won’t disappear as the pandemic recedes.

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