OFA Commentary: Survey shows farmers adapting, making strides on road to recovery

After several months of enduring the effects of COVID-19, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) reached out to our members to gather valuable input on how their farm businesses have fared, both positively and negatively, through the pandemic. Evidence shows a future that appears brighter and more optimistic than the doom and gloom we experienced in the beginning stages of the COVID-19 crisis. As we continue to advocate for Ontario’s agri-food sector and our 38,000 farm family members, OFA intends to use these results to identify opportunities for further support as we continue to navigate our road to recovery.

At the beginning of October, OFA launched a survey to take the pulse of the agriculture industry and better understand how farm families across Ontario have adapted through the pandemic. The survey garnered nearly 700 member responses with many indicating a more positive outlook compared to OFA’s trio of surveys in the spring. It is clear the input received showed significant improvements from previous responses.

The results indicated that many farm businesses have slowly transitioned out of the unpredictable phase of COVID-19 and have started adapting to new strategies to maintain, or even grow, their business despite the challenging state of the economy. In several instances, greater public interest in local food and supporting local businesses has resulted in an uptick in local food sales, direct farm marketing and online opportunities. One-third of respondents have experienced positive benefits this season, including new customers, increased consumer interest and awareness, new direct/online marketing opportunities, increased sales, and in some cases, reduced expenses.

Although several positive and optimistic responses were received indicating recovery, resilience and adaption, many of our members shared serious concerns about the broader economic circumstances. The survey revealed that 60% of Ontario farmers are concerned about a global recession, while 55% are concerned about financial impacts to their farm businesses and 52% disclosed their concern for trade and supply chain issues.

Business interruptions are being felt by farmers across the map. Current challenges in abattoir processing capacity, decreased market prices and reduced sales due to restaurant closures have created significant hardships in the livestock and poultry industry. Our farm business experienced a direct and significant impact due to closures in the restaurant and food service industries. As a farmer who markets most of our product to the restaurant sector, our revenue had taken an immediate hit as COVID-19 restrictions continued to hinder the operation of restaurants.

The inability to conduct business as usual has topped the list of impacts experienced by Ontario farmers. 43% of farmers stated they’ve had to alter their business to cope with the pandemic, with many experiencing delays and disruptions sourcing parts or materials for their equipment. With no projection or timeline on restrictions, my farm business made the decision not only to pivot our strategy to build an online retail model, but also market towards food processors instead of solely restaurants. Building a new revenue stream takes time but losing one dramatically affects a business immediately.

Farmers also identified ongoing labour shortages and those who use the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) had to modify their operations considerably to comply with pandemic health and safety protocols, costing significant time and money. Support from the provincial and federal governments through the Enhanced Agri-Food Workplace Protection Program has alleviated some of the cost burden associated with modifying agricultural operations, including employee work stations, housing and transportation.

Ontario farmers have been regularly faced with labour shortages and gaps, but the COVID-19 crisis has intensified these issues. To help combat labour shortages, OFA launched Feeding Your Future, a project funded through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership to connect agri-food employers to job seekers and to help address labour shortages and training needs on the farm.

While we have seen great improvements in the anticipated negative outcomes of the pandemic, many farms and local businesses are still struggling with reduced prices, decreased consumer sales and the absence of agritourism.

One of the hardest things Ontario farmers have had to do is navigate through unfamiliar waters and adjust to a new method of running their farm business operations. From price reductions, labour shortages, market turmoil, lack of processing capacity and loss of agritourism business – every farm in Ontario is dealing with their own unique situation. We understand that even though we’ve seen improvements, there is still a long way to go on our road to recovery.

Thanks to our valued members for taking the time to share your issues, concerns and feedback. We will continue to monitor the impacts, listen to our members, and relay information to support Ontario farm businesses. As an industry and family, we will persevere, work together and hope for the promise of a better year ahead.

Hugh Simpson is a director of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture

Hugh Simpson