Navigating our uncertain path through the pandemic

Your Western Producer journalists have produced some very interesting stories about living through this pandemic and how it has affected us and those around us.
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Each year, we produce one special edition of your Western Producer.

Our editorial staff starts planning for this project months in advance. Like the agriculture we are a part of, we expect it will be innovative, necessary and inspiring.

This year, I wasn’t so sure it would be the case. This year, we decided to have a look at COVID-19 and its effects on our industry.

Five months ago, when we picked the 2020 special topic, we had some hopes that the second wave of the pandemic might be less than predicted. That was why we initially planned that this edition would explore what we, as an industry and a community, had learned and experienced and share that, in search of innovation. We planned to focus on extension ag, especially some on-the-farm research results.

We presumed at the time that common sense would rule this day and all Canadians would have learned and understood the threat this disease creates and responded appropriately.

Mostly, we were right to believe those things.

We were optimistic, even though science told us that when we carried on our lives in closer quarters during winter, the viral spread would be inevitable. Anybody who has raised livestock is familiar with what happens when more critters are put into smaller spaces and there is a serious virus around. But we had hope nonetheless.

As well, we hoped that the common sense rural people are well known for, would keep nearly everyone from coming into contact with too many other people, until we had a vaccine. The thinking was that common sense would keep us at home as much as possible.

However, although we’ve done better than some of our neighbours, our hopes might have been a bit too ambitious.

And while my optimism remains intact, we have made some changes for this issue. Your Western Producer journalists have produced some very interesting stories about living through this pandemic and how it has affected us and those around us.

Agriculture has some natural advantages when it comes to globally infectious diseases. Especially in a western Canadian context, where distance and isolation come with life on the farm.

But COVID-19 is a highly infectious virus and it has found its path to our doors despite this.

The markets for our products remain strong, unlike many other parts of the economy. People might not be burning as much fuel or using as many of our other natural resources, but they are eating. Every meal keeps agriculture rolling. It’s the one industry that never gets smaller.

Despite the obstacles thrown up by this virus, the industry has found its paths forward, as it always must. I hope that in these pages, you will see some things you might not have seen before.

It’s one of the things we do at The Western Producer. As well, maybe you’ll catch a few glimpses of yourselves.

Here is a list of all the stories in this special issue:

We make our own fun here – There’s a good chance that if you grew up in the rural prairies, you have fond memories of skating under the sky and stars with your friends and neighbours.

Learning from COVID-19 – With governments around the world rolling out several COVID-19 vaccines, are Canadian development efforts being left behind?

Lack of students stalls research – Agriculture Canada employs hundreds of highly skilled professionals, who have PhDs and specialized knowledge of plant science, soil nutrients and livestock husbandry. But those experts need summer students to carry out the basic tasks of agricultural research — like seeding, tending to bee hives, harvesting crops and collecting data.

Supply-side worries send sales sky high – Consumers facing the growing uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis are seeking the security that comes from having a freezer full of locally-produced food, said an Alberta rancher.

Slow recovery for ethanol industry – COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the ethanol sector and the grains that provide the feedstock for the industry. The United States supplies slightly more than half of the world’s ethanol.

Dark days for farm shows – Restrictions on the number of people that can gather in one place have made farm shows and producer meetings difficult, if not impossible, since the pandemic swept through Canada.

Early stockpiling may soon lead to weak demand for grains and oilseeds: report – Rabobank worries that the current wave of demand for grains and oilseeds will subside once importing countries reach a comfortable level of stocks.

A radical change – COVID-19 has changed how people eat and shop for food, and there could be more change to come. Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said food has been a complicated and complex issue during the pandemic.

The future of food – With a little nudge by a pandemic, the curtain has been opened between the consumer and food system, according to Toronto-based Nourish Food Marketing president Jo-Ann MacArthur.

Ag not derailed during 2020 – Abundant harvests that are setting new records for grain movement by railways show how Canada’s agriculture sector is helping the country get through the COVID-19 crisis, said an industry leader.

Rediscovering rural life – The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic appears to have created the desire in at least some urban dwellers to leave the city for small communities, acreages and farms.

Snowbirds get their wings clipped – When Canadian pop legend Anne Murray released her chart-topping single Snowbird in 1970, she could not have imagined the trouble that sun-seeking travellers would endure some 50 years later.

Finding ways to head south – CAMROSE, Alta. — Despite COVID-19 and a closed border, Gord Johnsen still flew to Arizona for the winter without the rest of the Canadian snowbirds. The warm weather beckoned, but close friends in the community of Gilbert, Arizona, are the real draw.

Now is the time for long-term care reform – Canadians have lobbied for long-term care reform for 50 years, but the urgent need for it has become painfully obvious to everyone during the past eight months.

The not-so-funny papers – Editorial cartoon wrap-up – A look at COVID-19 as it was seen in The Western Producer’s editorial cartoons this year.

Learning to do and do without: heart, head, hands and health – The 4-H motto is “learn to do by doing,” and this year members have been learning how to do without certain aspects of their usual club activities. The global pandemic has led to cancelled shows, tours and other 4-H events across the Prairies.

Homeroom on the range – Georgia Pawlitza doesn’t need to catch the school bus each morning anymore and she doesn’t miss it. Having an extra hour to sleep in is awesome, said the Grade 11 Hazlet, Sask., student.

Local food in a post-pandemic world – Newfoundlanders don’t want to depend on other Canadians for food. A few years ago, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador set a goal of producing 20 percent of its own food by 2022. The would be a substantial improvement from the current 10 percent.

First-time growers dig a new trend – More Canadians got their hands dirty this year and took up gardening. Pandemic gardening became the thing to do in 2020.

Vet checks go virtual – Dr. Kelly Loree was busy visiting dairy farms earlier this year, providing veterinary care to various herds in the Ponoka, Alta., region. The pandemic hasn’t affected the need for livestock veterinary attention. But while on the job, Loree was exposed to the COVID-19 virus on three different farms, the result of farmers’ earlier participation at a birthday party where someone had the virus.

Dairy, hog sectors suffer hits – Two of Canada’s livestock industries got savaged in the first COVID-19 lockdowns and outbreaks, but both have stabilized and one is recovering. Rather than the disasters that ravaged both the dairy and hog industries in spring, the two production systems have fallen out of the national news.

How processors weathered the COVID storm – For a while, problems at North American meatpacking plants were front page news. As infections afflicted thousands of workers at numerous major facilities, including Canada’s two biggest beef processors, the outlook appeared dire.

Equipment dealers fight COVID-19 – In farming areas there’s one category of stores that remain open 365 days of the year. Farmers need their local equipment dealers like Jack needs Jill, pandemic or no pandemic.

Feeding the agricultural machine during COVID-19 – It was unclear if farmers would have access to parts they needed to keep equipment running when the pandemic first hit North America. Agriculture equipment manufacturers have been considered a critical service through the pandemic, so they have stayed open.

COVID-19 pandemic skips fertilizer industry – COVID or no COVID, Mother Earth’s population needs food. Up to half the food we eat wouldn’t be available without fertilizers, explaining why the fertilizer sector wasn’t hard hit.

Lean cuisine – Much like the people afflicted by the COVID-19 itself, the pandemic’s effect on the hospitality industry varies from manageable to catastrophic.

New approaches needed to ensure food security – As much as it is a time of crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is also a time for the agri-food sector to explore new opportunities, said an industry expert.

Business as (un)usual – This summer, I asked a farming neighbour of mine in Roblin, Man., how his operation has been affected by the pandemic. Other than having to put on a mask a few times when he went to pick up supplies, he couldn’t think of a single way he had to change how his farm does business.

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