Senators: Financial security for farmers means food security for Canadians

OTTAWA – If Canada wants food security in the future, we need financial security for our farmers now. But Ottawa’s promise of $250 million emergency aid this week – half of which is not new- falls far short of the $2.6 billion the Canadian Federation of Agriculture says we need.

Helping companies retrofit factories to increase capacity so beef and pork producers have a place to sell their animals, and a plan to  buy and store excess product so farmers don’t have to dump milk or cull herds is a start, but this will not come soon enough and consumer prices will still increase.

The steps being taken by the government, though welcomed, do not address the severity of the situation being faced by our agricultural producers across the country. The services they provide are essential – the agriculture and agri-food industries contribute roughly $110 billion annually to Canada’s GDP, and accounts for one eighth of Canada’s jobs. The message coming from farmers and the industries they represent is one of desperation; much more is needed to get them through this difficult time.

Canada’s agriculture industry was in crisis before the coronavirus. Incomes were down 45 percent in 2018. Last season was described as the “harvest from hell.” Farmers experienced bad weather, a ban on exports of canola, soybean and pork to China (Canada’s second largest market), and problems with meat processing capacity.

And then there were the punitive effects of the carbon tax, raised again this month, which added significant costs for farm operations, especially for grain drying and housing animals. The government’s decision to go ahead with the 50 per cent increase on the carbon tax could have not come at a worse time- reports of costs doubling are common among those who have decided to plant. This is concerning when the average farmer earns under $12,000 a year after expenses.

To stave off further financial disaster, many farmers may simply not plant their crops this year. The government has increased Farm Credit Canada’s lending capacity by $5 billion, and extended Advance Payment Program loans repayments. But offering farmers the option of more (albeit cheaper) debt is not substitute for reopening or securing existing markets.

Discouraging our farmers from producing will mean supply shortages across the country and around the world, and a secure supply of food cannot be guaranteed.

The health and safety guidelines for farm workers needs to be updated and we also need to ensure the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to continue operations. Ottawa also promised this week to provide some funds to buy PPE for workers reluctant to return to plants considered high risk. But with a highly competitive marketplace, supplies will be hard to come by.

We are being told by farmers that they are ineligible for the government’s emergency relief funding. Because they continue to work, farmers are disqualified from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Many small farm operations are also not covered by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). But incomes are being lost regardless and we anticipate some farms will not survive the long-term financial crisis. The government should create a dedicated emergency fund for farmers, to help offset any losses or costs brought on by the pandemic. But Cabinet has appeared to rule that out. A genuinely well-funded agricultural stabilization program would help shoulder any future hits to the industry.

But most importantly, our farmers need secure domestic and export markets to sell their crops and livestock. With global food storage and supply chain deficiencies projected to increase, we need to incentivize our farmers to produce for domestic and global markets. But the markets need to be available. We need to make progress with China, which has closed the door to Canadian canola. We need that door opened.

The government’s initial decision to bar temporary and foreign workers from the country has also, thankfully, been reversed and Ottawa has now promised $50 million to farmers to cover quarantine costs of their temporary foreign workers.

Our rural communities also continue to struggle with slow internet speeds, despite promises from the government. In normal times, this is a problem. Now, when internet use has become even more crucial, the disparity is even more pronounced. Even programs such as 4-H have moved online, but without reliable internet access, rural youth have limited or no access.

We need to be honest here. This is also hurting the mental health of our farmers. It’s an issue that has long been ignored. In the best of times, farmers work long hours doing physically and mentally demanding work, with unpredictable incomes and external factors such as weather influencing their success. And we are not in the best of times. It is a stressful lifestyle that is now being exacerbated by additional uncertainty, loneliness, and fear. It is unacceptable treatment for a group of people so necessary to the functioning of society.

Canada produces food for the world and for everyone in this country. If we want food security for Canadians, our farmers are going to need help getting us there.

Senator Robert Black and Senator Pamela Wallin