Feds improve COVID-19 ag money, provinces hesitate

The federal government has further tweaked business risk management programs and injected new cash to assist producers facing financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government today announced changes to AgriStability, AgriRecovery and AgriProtection, as well as an additional $252 million in finance assistance.

While producer organizations say the new money isn’t enough to address challenges, federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the measures intend to save family farms and ensure food security.

With AgriStability, she said the enrolment deadline has now been pushed to July 3. To access more liquidity, producers in certain provinces can ask for an advance payment of 75 percent. Previously, they could ask for an advance payment of 50 percent.

She said AgriStability was designed to limit losses caused by significant price declines. She encouraged all producers to join the program.

With AgriRecovery, Bibeau said, 90 percent of expenses will be covered. Normally, 70 percent is covered.

The federal government will cover 60 percent of the total share and is relying on the provinces to cover the remaining 40 percent.

Within AgriRecovery, Bibeau said, $125 million will serve as a set-aside program for cattle and pork producers, helping with herd management.

Saskatchewan agriculture minister David Marit said the province had asked for the additional money, but he has concerns about the cost-share agreement.

He said it’s challenging for provinces to shore up finances to cover the 40 percent.

“The 40 percent they are asking is a big number when we are looking at the cattle and hog sectors,” he said. “We’ve made it clear to the federal minister, during the last three calls, that our fiscal capacity is limited.”

Alberta and Manitoba have not yet commented on the cost-share agreement.

Labour shortages may now be considered an eligible risk under AgriProtection. It will be up to the provinces if they want to include labour shortages as an eligible risk. If accepted, producers could make claims if they had insufficient help during the growing season.

Marit said the Saskatchewan government hasn’t yet analyzed the AgriProtection changes. He said the provinces’ temporary foreign worker numbers are relatively low compared to other jurisdictions.

Bibeau encouraged producers to withdraw savings from AgriInvest, given the circumstances. AgriInvest acts as a producer savings account, she said. Contributions of up to $10,000 per year are matched by government.

On top of the business risk management program changes, the government is investing $77.5 million to support food processors. The funds will help expand capacity by adapting, modifying or re-opening plants, Bibeau said.

The government is funding $50 million for a food surplus purchase program. The program will help food banks purchase surplus products.

Max Koeune, president and CEO of McCain Foods, said in a statement the company is pleased with the program and is looking forward to seeing details.

“This support needs to be in place quickly, as potatoes in store are at risk of spoiling as the weather warms,” he said.

Bibeau said the government plans on increasing the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing capacity by $200 million. The measures, which require legislative approval, would help the commission increase butter and cheese storage capacity.

As well, the federal government has provided $50 million to help farmers pay for isolation costs for temporary foreign workers; $20 million to bolster food inspection; $100 million for food banks; and $5 billion in increased lending capacity through Farm Credit Canada.

Bibeau said there has already been roughly $3 billion in deferred loans through FCC since the changes were announced.

Bibeau stressed business risk programs provide farmers with $1.6 billion in support each year.

However, the measures don’t go far enough, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. It had asked for $2.6 billion.

The CFA said in a news release today that while it welcomed the funds, they won’t avert negative impacts to the Canadian food supply.

It said business risk management programs have gaps and inequalities between commodities. This means some commodities won’t be able to recover, it said.

As well, it worries the funding might arrive too late.

“With such huge uncertainty in our sector and lack of a firm financial backstop, in essence we are asking our farmers to put themselves and their farms at risk to grow food for Canada,” CFA president Mary Robinson said in the news release.

“Many farmers are facing the reality that these risks are too great, and are having to modify their food production plans,” she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated more assistance will be made available if necessary.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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