By Connor Lynch
COLLINGWOOD — COVID-19 restrictions started to lift significantly in Ontario last month. Much of the province moved into Phase 3 of the re-opening schedule on July 17, meaning the vast majority of businesses could reopen and many activities could resume.
The farm sector, like all others, has struggled with the shutdown of the economy. Farmers Forum spoke with Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie, who farms at Collingwood, north of Toronto, about where farmers stood last month and what they can expect for the future.
We’ve gotten through the lockdown and things are opening up. Is the worst behind us, for farmers?
“Boy, I wish I had that crystal ball. Local areas and the province need to manage this properly so we don’t see that second wave. We’ll see something, it’s happening already around the world, but if we manage it and minimize the risk, (that will) be very beneficial for the agri-food sector. I don’t know how quickly people will rush out to eat out at restaurants or meet at hotels, but (when it happens) that’ll ramp up food consumption out of the house. That’s good for the ag economy.
“But we have to be careful. If things come to a screeching halt again, that will put more financial stress back on the producers. Fortunately, food has still been moving across borders to our friends in the south. In Canada and Ontario, we’re an export province and nation. The value in products is in processing, that’s a big economic return for us. How do we ensure that our rural communities still survive, that all the businesses that support agriculture are viable? It’s very complex.”
What’s the bigger concern? A second wave of COVID-19 or a second wave of lockdowns?
“With a lockdown, people still consume food. The bigger potential (problem) is if a second wave slows down processing more. Processing seems to be the key cog. If (processors) keep going, product keeps flowing. And the processing lines on the meat side have not rebounded to their potential capacity yet. Lines are still slow because of the distancing, barriers and whatnot.
“And in particular for the horticulture sector, if a second wave comes through that could really affect crops coming out of the ground or off the tree. The infections that’ve happened didn’t happen because migrant workers brought it in. They happened because of community spread.”
Which sector got hit the hardest?
“It depends on who you ask. Certainly the red meat sector, because of the processing issues. There was a shortage of processing already, prior to COVID-19 in Eastern Canada. The poultry sector was hit, whether with the eggs or broilers going into the hospitality and restaurant sector. (Farmers were) destroying 3-million to 4-million eggs per week across Canada. The horticulture sector is typically short on labour but the greater shortage this year has impacted them hugely. Typically there are workers that come in around now for harvest. Will the shortage continue? (The impact on) the grain and oilseed sector (was) maybe lesser, except ethanol, which has impacted corn. We all got touched in one shape, way or form.”
Do you see the federal government coming back with more money for farmers?
“We’re still continuing to push through Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Feds have made it very clear: COVID-19 relief measures aren’t going to come through Business Risk Management, other than AgriRecovery. Provinces are putting in requests (under AgriRecovery), and there may be more to come. Anyone eligible for crop insurance, the province has been able to negotiate coverage for production loss as a result of labour loss, which has been a positive, especially for the horticulture sector. But generally we won’t qualify for programs. The government has been saying to rely on AgriStability at the end of the year. We’re hoping people will survive to the end of the year. We’re trying to get a commitment on the federal side at the federal-provincial talks in October. I think anything could be on the table, depending on how it’s presented.
“At this point in time, there’s not been a lot of federal relief. (That) $252 million, realistically only $100 million was for primary agriculture. It’s frustrating. Waiting on AgriStability could cost businesses their businesses.”
You said that Canada could lose 15 per cent of its farms by year-end? Is that still possible?
“We’re still gonna see some fallout. Where that’ll land is hard to say. To put an accurate number on it would be tough. We hope that it’s smaller, but we’ll see some losses.”
What’s the OFA’ top priority now?
“There’s our day-to-day stuff. Land use issues. Bill 156, which we’re happy about. The PAWS Act, done last fall. The trespassing act, we’ve been pushing for something there. Not a done deal yet: still need to work there. Bunch of other new things going on.
“Always ongoing conversations with the government, continuing to build that relationship with the government. We want to be that first point of contact.
“Also the ongoing conversation on COVID-19, how we recover. To look back first: How did we do? What could we do better? What can we do going forward to lessen the impact of the next COVID-19, whatever it is?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.