Ag support to be spent soon: Bibeau

Money tabbed for the federal government’s surplus food buying program is expected to start rolling out in early August, according to the federal Agriculture Minister.

“We’re almost ready, we’re looking at the final selection of the partners,” Marie-Claude Bibeau said during a July 24 interview. “We are really at the last stage. The organizations who will get the money will be informed shortly.”

The $50 million Surplus Food Rescue Program was announced in early May, with details on how to apply coming in June. It is expected to move extra food through the food system to vulnerable Canadians.

The minister also confirmed that Ottawa’s $77.5 million fund designed to help food processors deal with the impacts of COVID-19 will soon be ready.

“We’re very, very close to the end as well,” she said. “Maybe not as much. The food program is a matter of days, for the food processing it won’t all be announced at the same time, so a couple of weeks or months at the latest.”

The funding for processors should help them offset the costs of purchasing personal protective equipment and installing safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

A $100 million fund set up to assist local food banks distribute food to vulnerable Canadians is “almost all distributed,” according to Bibeau.

While the federal government recently announced $35 million to assist producers with ensuring temporary foreign workers employed at their operations are safe, Bibeau cautioned against the sector having high expectations for additional support.

When the bulk of federal supports were announced in May as part of a $252 million aid package, industry groups like the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) were calling for $2.5 billion.

In response, Bibeau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested more money would be coming as needed.

Now, Bibeau suggested that need may not exist across the entire sector.

“The sector is doing better than what we expected three months ago,” she said, noting they are following the situation closely. “The situation is not the same for each and every sector, and even within a sector the situation can be different.”

In terms of more ad-hoc support for producers, Bibeau said, “I don’t want to close the door, but at the same time (farmers) should recognize the general programs we are putting in place are supporting them.”

Bibeau pointed out there are supports available to producers, even if they are not specific to the agriculture sector. As an example, she cited changes made to the Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program to more easily allow farmers access to up to $40,000 in interest free loans while receiving a $10,000 rebate if it’s paid off by the end of 2022.

Ottawa estimated changes made in May to expand the eligibility of the program would more than double the number of farms qualified to access the money, bringing the total to 67,700 farms; but no data is available on how many producers have been able to actually access those dollars.

Bibeau said she continues to focus on reforming business risk management (BRM) programs.

“Obviously the BRM are the first to be put forward. If we find that a sector that is really affected in a significant way, more than the others, and actually in the situation were going through right now it’s not comparing just to the ag sector, it’s comparing to the whole economy,” she said. “We have to look at it from a very, very wide (lens).”

Producers shouldn’t have high hopes for any major reforms coming for BRM programming either, however.

Bibeau said she rejected a proposal from the provinces that would have seen the federal contribution to the cost-shared program rise from 60 percent to 90 percent under the current Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).

“We have to find a consensus to move forward, it’s a cost-shared program so you cannot expect only the federal government will put money on the table,” she said. “Right now, what we are doing is to put evidence on the table to see what are the strengths and weaknesses of each of these programs and how they are reaching their objectives based on evidence.”

She said her intention now is to go back to the provinces with “options based on evidence.”

“I would love and hope very much to achieve this so we can have some changes by October, but we will also be looking at a more significant review for the next generation of the Canadian Partnership for Agriculture, which we still have two years to go,” she said. “Some short-term changes hopefully, and starting the conversation for more significant reform for the next generation of CAP.”

Bibeau said she is committed to at least keeping the federal contribution at 60 percent, but will continue to review different scenarios, as well as “have a good chat with our Minister of Finance.”

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