The province’s beef industry is teetering on the brink of disaster, says the vice-president of the Beef Farmers of Ontario.
“The biggest problem we face is processing capacity and that was a problem even before COVID-19,” Jack Chaffe, a beef farmer from Perth County, said May 6. “We’re in crisis now and, if we were to lose more processing, it would be a disaster.”
Chaffe made the comments a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $252 million in new federal assistance for Canadian farmers and others in the agri-food industry.
The government is setting aside $77 million to help food processing companies purchase protective equipment, adapt measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and increase processing capacity.
A further $125 million will help cattle and hog producers. who are keeping their animals longer and seeing their costs rise because of a lack of processing capacity.
And the remaining $50 million will be used by the government to purchase large quantities of surplus products for distribution to areas in need instead of allowing them to go to waste.
According to the 2016 Statistics Canada census, Brant County was home to 160 farms with cattle, while Norfolk County had 134 such farms, Haldimand County, 241, and Oxford County, 703.
Chaffe said the May 5 announcement gave beef farmers a “little bit of life but overall it was disappointing.”
He said much greater government support is needed if the beef industry is to meet the growing demand for locally produced meat.
The $125 million in federal funds will be of limited help, Chaffe said.
“We’ll get about $50 million of that and that’s about half of what we asked for.”
Beef farmers also have asked the federal government to work with the province to immediately remove the cap on the Ontario Risk Management Program, a cost-shared insurance plan that aims to stabilize the industry by providing partial protection for farmers when market prices drop.
At present, the program is financed provincially and capped at $100 million, Chaffe said.
“We need the cap lifted and we need the federal government to support the program,” he said. “We’ve been asking for that and it’s disappointing that it wasn’t addressed during last Tuesday’s announcement.
“Governments need to recognize that farmers can’t borrow their way out of the crisis.”
He said the $77 million in funding may help provide better protection to food processors but the money will be stretched thin.
In Ontario, most of the beef processing is done at a Cargill plant in Guelph and at St. Helen’s Meat Packers in Toronto. If either federally regulated facility is hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, the result would be disastrous for the beef industry, Chaffe said.
A third federally regulated plant, Ryder Regency in Toronto, closed last year.
Chaffee said there are some smaller provincially regulated processing plants in Ontario but they lack the capacity to handle more animals.
For its part, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture welcomed the May 5 funding announcement but said more is needed to avert negative impacts to the country’s food supply in the coming months.
The $252 million falls “woefully short” in addressing the needs of Canada’s agri-food industry, the federation said in a statement.
The federation has said agri-food needs $2.6 billion in funding to help farmers get through the COVID-19 crisis.
The federal government called the funding an initial amount, with more assistance possible.