By Patrick Meagher
and Nelson Zandbergen
OTTAWA — 2021 was another year of COVID restrictions dominating everything, while increasing anxiety, fear and frustration. Increasingly, people are now asking themselves, will life ever return to normal? After sifting through all of the stories of 2021, and so much about COVID, Farmers Forum has assembled this list of top 10 impacts on farming in 2021.
1. Shortages of everything
Supply chains were shaken as economic demand began rebounding in 2021 — in concert with continued outbreaks, pandemic restrictions and labour shortages. The resulting “shortages of everything” included near-empty lots for new and used equipment.
Microchips famously became scarce in 2021, delaying orders for all manner of vehicles, tractors and electronic farm equipment now utterly dependent on Chinese-made technology. The effects rippled through farm equipment dealerships as a shortage of new tractors led to surging prices for used ones. New pickup trucks became hard to come by — and ever more expensive.
Parts suddenly took a lot longer to arrive at local repair shops, if they arrived at all. Farmers Forum learned of an equipment dealer who sold a new combine without tires, thanks to disruptions in the rubber industry. A crop grower reported being unable to find masks to protect his lungs from dust (not COVID).
Building materials became hard to come by Quotations on new barn projects had little shelf life as contractors contended with lumber prices up 300 per cent from a year earlier. Some projects were cancelled. Plastic, too, became a rarer commodity, leading to cost increases for bale wrap and tile drainage pipe.
2. Astronomical crop prices
Can record crop prices get any better? Farmers Forum asked in late April. Per bushel prices for soybeans, corn and wheat were then cresting at $20, $7 and $7.85 per bushel respectively. Soybeans and corn did climb higher over the spring before settling down to still-historically strong prices — “astronomical values,” in the words of grain merchandiser and columnist Steve Kell. Wheat was stellar as well and remained on a mostly upward ascent from spring and through the year to reach over $8.80/bu by Dec.
3. Record crop yields
On average, Ontario farmers enjoyed a record harvest of the major crops in 2021, posting the highest recorded per-bushel counts in corn (175.2) , soybeans (51.6) and winter wheat (90.9), according to Stats Canada information compiled by OMAFRA. The province’s total bushel output of both corn (373 million) and winter wheat (98.16 million) also represent new records, while soybean production ranked number two overall.
On top of that, a bountiful hay crop came off the fields this year, replenishing inventories left low after last year. The ample hay, in combination with great corn and soybean output, definitely places 2021 as Ontario’s best overall, aggregate crop year, for some farmers.
4. Rural mental health
Perhaps one day, farmers will grow up knowing the risks of deteriorating mental health as innately as the dangers posed by an unguarded PTO shaft. That was the observation of registered psychotherapist and dairy farmer Deborah Vanberkel of Napanee, who was aware of two recent farmer suicides in her home county of Hastings.
Another seven farmers took their lives in Lambton county between November 2020 and November 2021, according to Lauren Van Ewyk, a Sarnia-area sheep producer and registered social worker with a masters degree in mental health counselling. “Absolutely, it’s a crisis,” she told Farmers Forum.
She also reported that farmers were experiencing chronic stress and the situation is worse in farm country because there are fewer therapists and farmers are more likely to say something to their seed dealer than to their wife or doctor. Even before the stresses wrought by the pandemic, a 2016 University of Guelph research survey pegged farmers’ chronic stress levels at 68 per cent higher than the general population and also found almost 6 in 10 farmers met the classification of suffering from anxiety.
5. Labour shortages
Employers in many sectors across Canada struggled to find workers last year, as many dropped out of the labour market. Some workers stayed home to collect federal emergency pandemic funds and never went back. Statistics Canada reported that there were 816,000 unfilled jobs in Canada last June and most of those jobs were in the service sector.
Labour has always been a concern on farms but last year it got worse. Four out of 10 Canadian farmers were not able to find the workers they needed, according to a Canadian Federation of Agriculture survey. Morrisburg crop farmer Arden Schneckenburger said that for one job opening on his farm not one person applied.
Most on-farm jobs are filled with foreign workers and last year not all foreign workers returned to Canada. Quarantine rules also forced farmers to delay planting and pruning as they quarantined their workers for 14 days before getting to work.
6. Inflation is back
Inflation is ugly, everyone hates it and it is a global problem thanks to repressive government policies that made life worse under the pandemic. Restrictions slowed down business, even closed businesses, threw people into unemployment and made accessing supplies more difficult.
A tighter product supply pushes prices up. But worse, our Canadian government printed lots of money and gave it away, allowing more dollars to chase fewer products.
In the first half of 2021, lumber prices doubled. “It’s insane,” said Aylmer Home Building Centre owner Steve Secord. “I’ve seen nothing like it.”
Almost everything is more expensive. Bale wrap, tile drainage, spare parts, tractors, you name it. Nitrogen fertilizer jumped about 80 per cent by the fall. Everyday purchases such as gasoline and groceries were also up. Grocery store meat prices jumped 10 per cent last year. Eggs were up 7 per cent. Gas pump prices averaged $1 per litre in the fourth-quarter of 2020 but last month hovered above $1.30.
7. Freedom lost to COVID blunders
We lost a lot of freedoms in 2021. This is not so much a front-page story as it is a theme that has been a cloud hovering over our lives since the spring of 2020.
Freedom-crushing lockdowns have destroyed people’s livelihoods and caused an increase in suicides and addictions. We were forced to live behind masks, even if only a cloth mask that barely works, in public buildings all year. Kids were forced to wear masks at school and teenagers were even forced to wear masks while playing in an Ottawa soccer tournament.
Then came the vaccine mandates. Governments and businesses forced people to get the vaccine and fired the unvaccinated and banned them from all restaurants. In under two years we morphed from being an open society to turning a group of people into pariahs, banishing them to the fringes of society. There is still no actual goal or plan to liberate us from totalitarian rules.
8. Carbon tax outrage
“Basically, I’m in a global market with my hands tied behind my back, standing waist-deep in quicksand, trying to fight off a tiger,” Chesterville-area elevator operator and crop farmer Marty Derks told Farmers Forum, summing up the reality of competing with American growers and grain dryers not saddled with Canada’s carbon tax.
2021 was a year of setbacks for farmers like Derks on the carbon-tax front. Already furious by the Trudeau regime’s late-2020 decision to blow past an originally promised $50 per-tonne cap on the tax — now slated to hit $170 by decade’s end — farmers’ hopes were dashed as bill C-206, which would have exempted grain-drying, passed in the House but died in the Senate with the Aug. 15 election call.
Even at the current $30/tonne rate (rising to $50 in 2023 and gradually to $170 in 2030) the carbon tax is adding thousands of dollars to the monthly natural gas and propane bills at the grain-drying operations. This, in turn, is passed along to farmers, ultimately added to their per-acre input costs.
The Grain Farmers of Ontario has sounded the alarm that growers by 2030 will be paying $46 per acre in additional drying costs as a result of the tax. That’s $36,800 on an average 800-acre farm.
9. Farmers buy up abattoirs
Ontario has been bleeding abattoirs for years and as more faced closing, beef farmers felt compelled to take over or close down with them.
While abattoir slaughters are often booked months in advance, many owners were closing in on retirement and couldn’t find buyers for their businesses, noting that slaughtering animals doesn’t appeal to most people. A small number of beef farmers have come to the rescue in recent years.
Last year, continued the trend. The Enrights bought the abattoir in Yarker. Pakenham farmers Chad and Sarah Hunt bought the Athens abattoir and a group of three farms bought Henderson Meats at Chesterville.
10. Environment minister-activist
Farmers were fuming when a former radical Greenpeace activist was appointed as Canada’s Environment Minister. Montreal MP Steven Guilbeault was once arrested for scaling the outside of Toronto’s CN tower in protest of Canada using gas and oil. After his first meeting with a group of Alberta oil executives last month, he told a newspaper reporter, “I was and still am an activist.”
Noted Grain Farmers of Ontario district 12 director Jeff Harrison: “The federal government has just introduced a cabinet with a leftist, environmentalist agenda that is going to be anti-agriculture.”