COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of federal emergency help, and there is no better time to fix existing programs that fall short of farmers’ needs, says a central Alberta producer.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rolled out a $252-million agriculture and agri-food relief package on Tuesday, but there was little in there for the grain industry, said Jeff Nielsen, who farms near Olds and is chair of Grain Growers of Canada.
“This relief package offers no resolution to our existing issues, which result from long-standing market access challenges, rail blockades and 2019’s harvest from hell.
“Our minister of agriculture has already indicated that programs like AgriStability need to be improved, so why not start today?” said Nielsen.
Farmers have been asking that the program return to covering 85 per cent of producers’ losses during emergencies.
The Alberta barley and Alberta wheat commissions also called for improvements to the AgriStability program, as well as business risk management programs.
Farm organizations have been critical of Trudeau’s funding announcement, noting the Canadian Federation of Agriculture called for $2.6 billion in aid.
Alberta Wheat Commission chair Todd Hames echoed Nielsen’s call for government to take a big-picture approach and develop permanent, effective risk management programs.
“Now we are seeing significant federal investment directed only at short-term solutions, and none of which will support the issues grain farmers were already facing.”
Nielsen, like many Alberta farmers, spent last week harvesting crops that should have come off fields last fall, but were stalled by bad weather and an early onset of winter.
For now, the grain industry is not facing the same immediate challenges as the beef industry, where producers are ringing alarm bells that disaster looms unless meat packing plants are restored to full production.
“When it comes to COVID, the grain sector hasn’t seen any serious effect — yet. And I use that word with a lot of caution,” said Nielsen.
“When I look at Cargill, that could easily happen to our crushing facilities, or our malting facilities, and they could be shut down.
“What about our railroads, and if there are issues there and they need to slow down or shut down, and we can’t get grain to port? You go to port, you have the workers there and there could be issues where they need to shut down.”
Some of the pressure would be relieved if producers were confident there were adequate programs in place to insulate them, at least partly, in cases of disaster.
Worst-case supply chain scenarios are very much on the minds of beef producers.
The Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, south of Calgary, reopened Monday after a two-week shutdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak. As of Tuesday, 949 of its 2,000 workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus; 810 have recovered.
There is also an outbreak affecting 487 workers at the JBS slaughterhouse in Brooks, which is down to one shift a day, largely due to absenteeism. There are 36 cases at the smaller, family-owned Harmony Beef, just north of Calgary.
Companies have implemented new safety measures, including the use of masks and installation of barriers to ensure social distancing.
Alberta Beef Producers chair Kelly Fraser-Smith said it is key that packing plant workers feel safe and comfortable about returning to work, so that the plants can get back to full production.
“We really need those animals to be moved out of the pens and to be produced. What we’re going to see is this increasing backlog until the fall.”
If cattle are backed up in feedlots, there will be no room for the calves born this spring, which are sent to feedlots in October and November. That will drive down prices sharply for calves, because there will be fewer takers.
Fraser-Smith, who operates NuHaven Cattle Company, near Pine Lake, said government support is needed to help feedlot owners, who will be facing big bills continuing to feed cattle that would normally have been sent for processing already.
The potential impact on Alberta’s beef industry raises memories of bovine spongiform encephalopothy (BSE), a neurological disease that appeared in an Alberta cow in the spring 2003 and triggered a 40-country boycott of Canadian beef.
“It could come a very close second to BSE, the way the foreacasts are looking right now,” she said. “And I don’t say that lightly.
“I survived BSE, our family survived BSE, and that was only because of a lot of hard work and a lot of patience.”
BSE’s devastating toll was not only financial, but also emotional. It is a topic no one treats lightly, even after so many years.
Fraser-Smith said she and other producers are grateful for the show of support they have had from Albertans and from Canadians elsewhere.
Conservative Red Deer-Lacombe MP Earl Dreeshen said agriculture producers had also raised the BSE comparision. In testimony Tuesday before the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, Dreeshen said it drove 27,000 ranchers out of the business.
Dreeshen blasted the Liberal government for its inadequate response to the crisis and for failing to address the shortcomings of the business risk management program.
“What the Liberal government is delivering does not even represent a drop in the bucket in terms of assistance for the hardworking farmers, ranchers and producers who play such a vital role in providing Canadians with the best and most nutritious foods in the world,” said Dreeshen.