While farmers wait for senior governments to firm up pandemic support programs, a local agricultural representative says there are informal measures producers can take to reduce their risk.
One of them, says Larry Davis, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s representative in Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk, involves mutual aid.
Many producers of fruits and vegetables are fearful a pandemic outbreak may sideline their offshore workforces. A two-week quarantine of key personnel would be financially devastating, especially if it occurred mid-harvest.
Davis says there is nothing stopping growers from organizing themselves with pledges to assist if a COVID-19 outbreak paralyzes any of their neighbours. That, Davis said, spreads the risk around while reducing stress for all concerned.
“It’s up to farmers to pre-arrange that – if they can,” Davis said May 7.
Davis agrees with comments by Tillsonburg asparagus grower Mike Chromczak, a director of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, that high-volume operations need a specific safety net geared to pandemic production. Chromczak said farmers trying to feed Canadians have been asked to assume an inordinate amount of risk this year.
“Farmers are really putting their necks on the line to provide food for consumers,” Davis said.
Both OFVGA and OFA are encouraged by Ottawa’s announcement of $252 million in aid to the agricultural sector as part of the federal government’s COVID-19 response. Davis and others want the Ford government to collaborate in the delivery of specific assurances that a random outbreak won’t wipe out a farmer financially.
OFVGA president Bill George endorsed this position in a statement.
“As a sector that heavily relies on labour to plant, maintain, harvest, sort and pack fruits and vegetables, having labour disruptions backstopped is something OFVGA has been recommending since the pandemic arrived in Canada,” George said.
“Although there is much more that needs to be done, (Wednesday’s) funding announcements demonstrate that the federal government is beginning to take steps in support of domestic food security.
“OFVGA urges the federal and provincial governments to ensure that fruit and vegetable farmers have the confidence now to continue making investments in planting and maintaining their crops, despite the unique and increased risks presented by COVID-19. Our approach is to ensure that financial supports exist if the need arises.”
OFA supported this position on May 7.
President Keith Currie is especially encouraged that federal officials this week expressed their intention “to expand production insurance to include labour shortages related to COVID-19 as an insurable risk.”
“There’s no denying Ontario’s agri-food sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Currie said. “Farmers across all commodities have been greatly impacted by this crisis and have experienced loss of market access, increased production costs, supply disruptions, processing challenges and revenue loss.
“The Ontario Federation of Agriculture understands commodities are facing urgent situations, and without immediate government support, these farm businesses may face financial jeopardy.”
In his update, Currie described some of the challenges COVID-19 is posing for agriculture in Ontario. These include:
- Social distancing restrictions would make it difficult for pick-your-own operations to do business.
- Uncertain requirements for livestock and reduced ethanol production due to a decline in travel have left grain and oilseed producers unsure of what they should plant this spring and how much.
- Egg producers have experienced a 15 per cent decline in sales.
- Hatcheries report reduced demand for chicks due to reduced demand for poultry products and lost access to export markets.
- Beekeepers have lost pollination contracts.
- 70 per cent of veal production goes to restaurants and the hospitality industry. With most of these businesses closed or with limited access to the public, demand has plummeted.
- Demand for mushrooms is down 30 per cent while demand for flowers is down 40 per cent.
There is concern about the ability of horse-related enterprises to feed their animals now that they are no longer interacting with the public.