Farmers limit ag aid praise

Farm leaders were careful last week to thank Ottawa for the $252-million aid package it announced May 5, but disappointment throughout the sector is clear.

“It’s just too little,” said Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president Bob Lowe. “I won’t say too late. It’s just too little.”

Canadian Pork Council chair Rick Bergmann called it an important first step, but only that.

“This announcement today provides really little meaningful support for the pork producer,” he said.

Concerns have mounted through the livestock supply chain as processors have been affected by COVID-19. Live animals are backed up within the system, forcing producers to feed them longer or euthanize.

CCA estimated losses will hit $500 million by June, while the CPC had asked for $20 per pig based on industry-wide losses of $675 million.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture asked for $2.6 billion to support all sectors that faced immediate hurt because of the pandemic.

“If there’s ever a sector that can keep the economy going and pull Canada out of this, when it comes down to it, agriculture is it,” said CFA second vice-president Chris van den Heuvel, a dairy and beef farmer from Cape Breton, N.S. “We cannot figure out why the government does not want to make this investment to keep the sector healthy enough to get through these trying times and pull us out the other side.”

The package, described by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an initial step, included $100 million for beef and pork producers through AgriRecovery, $25 million also under AgriRecovery but to declare labour shortages as an eligible risk, $77.5 million for processors to provide necessary protective equipment, and $50 million for a surplus purchase program for products like poultry and potatoes. The government also intends to increase the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing limit by $200 million for costs of storing cheese and butter to avoid waste.

Federal Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow said the government budgets $125 million for AgriRecovery every year, so it isn’t new money and hardly helpful.

“It’s disappointing and underwhelming,” he said. “They ask for $2.6 billion and you give a fraction of that?”

Barlow said the urban-centric Liberal government should consider that agriculture impacts every Canadian no matter where they live.

Details of how AgriRecovery funds will be distributed were not announced, other than that set-asides are included.

Federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the $50 million for beef producers and $50 million for pork producers would be covered at 90 percent of eligible expenses instead of the usual 70 percent because of the unusual circumstances.

She also said the money would flow as quickly as possible, largely through the provinces.

Provincial agriculture ministers on a May 8 conference call still had no details even though they are being asked to pay their 40 percent share of AgriRecovery.

Alberta announced it would pay its estimated $17 million share, but Saskatchewan agriculture minister David Marit said he couldn’t commit because he hadn’t seen details.

He said he doesn’t know the start date for the compensation, or which cattle are included.

“I hope to know more mid-next week,” he said May 8.

Saskatchewan initiated the AgriRecovery process several weeks ago and Marit said it was the first province to do so. But he said the province asked Ottawa to look at it, not necessarily go ahead and announce an amount without giving provinces details first.

“I can’t speak for Alberta,” he said about paying the provincial share. “Here, I have a process that I have to go through.”

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister said he would consider the request.

Lowe echoed Marit’s concern about the lack of details around the set-aside program.

CCA had asked for one similar to that implemented during the BSE crisis.

“One thing we want to make sure is that it involves not only the market-ready cattle but the backgrounding cattle as well,” Lowe said.

The backlog of about 130,000 head will get slightly smaller as the large beef plants in Alberta ramp up again, but that will still take time.

The main concern is health and safety of employees, he said, and though the companies say they will increase capacity as fast they can, that might not be that fast.

And, he said the beef share of AgriRecovery has already been spent as cattle have been backing up for six to eight weeks.

Bergmann at the CPC said the hog backlog in Eastern Canada is about 100,000 animals, while in Western Canada, producers are struggling to find buyers.

“I know (on) my personal farm we had to give them away for a few weeks and that I can tell you is no fun,” he said. “Some producers have already had to dispose of their pigs, which will happen at a much greater scale if further action isn’t taken and if we don’t get help.”

The farm leaders said they took some comfort in Trudeau and Bibeau’s words that the federal government plans to provide more.

“We’ll hold their feet to the fire,” Lowe said.

Bergmann also used a fire analogy.

“We look forward to more solutions but right now the solutions given to us would resemble a cup of water to look after a house that’s burning down,” he said.

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