Expecting more from gov’t a mistake

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture really set the bar high with its recent $2.6 billion aid request.

When a federal program barely worth $252 million was announced, the disappointment felt throughout the farming community wasn’t surprising.

The funds were indeed underwhelming and won’t be enough to get some of those producers to stick around. Many will regrettably exit the industry.

Before the announcement, we expected to lose as many as 15 percent of Canadian farms due to COVID-19. Ottawa’s plans won’t change that.

The $125-million program to support livestock raises a variety of concerns:

  • Executing the program will take time, something producers don’t have.
  • Few details were provided about the role of provinces or how much farmers will receive
  • The measures will likely not prevent more animals from being euthanized in days to come and killing farm animals for no reason is never a good thing.

It’s all such a shame for our farmers.

Losing farms won’t compromise our nation’s food security. Farmland never disappears and can always be exploited by someone else.

The most significant concern is how we create jobs and wealth in rural economies located far from urban centres.

The federal government has rarely bothered to show any evidence that it cared about rural communities or agriculture. But it should before it’s too late.

In the United States and Europe, governments provided financial aid to farmers weeks ago.

In the U.S., every American is providing $86 through taxes to support agriculture via government-sanctioned programs. In Europe, it’s more than $90 per capita. In Canada, the per capita support for agriculture is $6.

Farmers have every right to be disappointed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this was a first step. We hope it is for the sake of the sector.

There are interesting elements in the plan and the government should be credited for these:

  • Recognizing that the Canadian Dairy Commission is the ideal agent to deal with production surplus.
  • The $100-million credit to the Crown corporation responsible for making sure milk surpluses are managed properly.
  • The $77 million allocated to expand domestic processing capacity.

The Canadian processing sector is in crisis. In fact, it was in a crisis when it entered the pandemic. The sector has lost 12 jobs every day since 2012. That’s 35,000 jobs but barely anyone has spoken about it.

Ottawa presented a decent, measured plan, if too little too late. But it was wrong to expect so much from a government that’s obsessed with city-slicking ideas. Under its regime, pet shops have a greater chance of survival than some farmers.

But the program gives a sense of what needs to be improved.

Food processing needs support to keep employees safe at work, and we need mechanisms to prevent spoilage at the farmgate. Those issues are both within the scope of the program, which is a good sign.

Ottawa needs to make sure there are fewer divisions between the players in the food chain. Farmers should care about processors and vice versa.

An urban-rural divide remains entrenched in most federal government policies, including this announcement.

However, knowing how that divide can skew everything, $252 million for farmers is a decent start. Expecting more was a mistake.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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