By Tom Collins
OTTAWA — Farmers are infuriated that the federal government minimized the COVID-19 crisis in agriculture by giving twice as much funding relief to arts and sports and offering 22 times more money to post-secondary students who are not even working.
The Grain Farmers of Ontario chair Markus Haerle has gone way past disappointment when describing his feelings toward the federal government. Anger would be a better word.
“This Canadian government does not give a hoot about Canadian grain and oilseed production,” Haerle said. “It’s actually despicable having a government that treats the grain and oilseed sector this way.”
The federal government’s announcement on May 5 to support the agricultural industry during COVID-19 fell way short of what farmers were hoping for. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture said $2.6 billion was needed, but the feds pledged only $252 million. Of that money, $50 million will be used to buy surplus food such as chickens, mushrooms and potatoes to give to food banks, while $77 million will go to the processing sector for safety improvements and allow them to buy personal protective equipment such as masks.
About $100 million was set aside through AgriRecovery for beef and hog producers for holding on to extra animals that farmers must now feed. Around the time of BSE, beef farmers were receiving $2 per animal per day, but details on this year’s announcement weren’t released by press time.
Another $25 million will be given through the AgriRecovery program.
On top of that, $200 million will be added to the Canadian Dairy Commission’s credit line to be used toward storing milk and milk-related products.
By comparison, in late April, the federal government set aside another $5.2 billion for post-secondary students who are not working. Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie told Farmers Forum that while he doesn’t begrudge other groups getting money, he was less than underwhelmed by the agricultural announcement, especially considering that the arts and sports sectors were given $500 million.
“It really shows a lack of respect that this government has for agriculture,” he said. “It’s almost insulting. Imagine your house is on fire and you’re standing outside watching it burn, and I come along with a pail of water and say good luck. I’ve gone from being really angry to just being sad. The fact that food security is not a priority for this government should scare the heck out of Canadians in general.”
While Currie didn’t believe the government was going to give $2.6 billion, he was expecting $1 billion at the minimum, and possibly as much as $1.5 to $2 billion. Food production should be the government’s priority after health care, he said. The country will need agriculture after the pandemic to kickstart the economy, he said.
Part of the issue is that the Liberals are an urban-based party, and they don’t need the rural areas to win elections, Currie said. Some say that farmers shouldn’t be critical of the announcement so they don’t burn bridges. “I said ‘what bridges?’ What have we gotten in four and a half years that we’re going to be in danger of losing? The answer is nothing.”
Grain and oilseed farmers received nothing in the May 5 announcement. Preliminary results from a late-April GFO survey found that 90 per cent expect their net income will be reduced in 2020, and more than half are worried they will not be able to cover their 2020 planting costs.
The GFO is estimating losses to net income of $135 per acre for corn and $20 per acre for soybeans based on current prices. Overall, Ontario grain farmers could see $550 million in total revenue loss if futures prices don’t rebound to pre COVID-19 levels.
“Every crop that a farmer is putting in the ground, except wheat, is going to be losing money,” said Haerle. “We’re talking of 75 or 80 per cent of Ontario’s acreage is going to be losing money. Whoever can tell me there’s still a profit in growing corn or soybeans, they’re dreaming.”
The GFO was asking the federal government to fund 60 per cent of the risk management program and for a fully funded functional business risk management program. The GFO has been asking for that for a few years and farmers say the current AgriStability program doesn’t work.
“The government has never ever acted on it,” said Haerle. “They’re actually playing with us. Trudeau is probably one of the worst prime ministers (for) supporting agriculture, and I don’t mind if you quote that, because I’m so darned frustrated.”
At a press briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will.”
Haerle, however, has no confidence in future announcements.
Grain farmers are in a crisis after three years of depressed prices, said Haerle, with some farmers choosing to leave farming. Haerle knows of two farmers near his Eastern Ontario farm — both cropping between 600-700 acres — who recently quit cropping. One sold the farm and the other is renting his land.
To make matters worse, the European Union might bring in levies of corn, soybeans and wheat. “Where is our so-called trade agreements?” Haerle asked. “They’re actually as good as nothing.”