As Canadian farmers and food processors continue to struggle with the financial impact of COVID-19, concerns continue to be raised about whether the federal government's $252 million funding announcement is enough.
"Every person's life to a certain degree depends on agriculture," said Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
Prior to the May 5 funding announcement, the federation surveyed producers nation-wide, and based on expected commodity losses and expenses, came up with a much different funding need - $2.6 billion.
"If you're a cropping farmer, you are spending, across our country, hundreds of millions of dollars to get a crop into the ground with the idea, the plan, that you're going to tend to that crop all summer and harvest it in late summer or fall. And then, be able to take that to market and convert it into money," said Robinson, who is also part of a six-generation family farming business in Albany, P.E.I.
"So right now, if you're putting millions of dollars out and you're hoping to get paid in, maybe September, maybe July of next year, it takes a lot of faith in the system for a farmer to do that."
Difficult choices, limited options
With Canadian agriculture and agri-food employing 2.3 million Canadians and annual contributions of more than $145 billion to GDP, the value of Canadian agriculture and agri-food to the country's economic recovery cannot be overlooked, she said.
Farmers are expected to rely on existing safety net programs, such as AgriStability, which was designed to help with financial losses as a result of significant declining margins. But Robinson said that program is "broken, and it's insufficient."
Farmers are also facing difficult decisions about what to do with animals that are ready to go to market when processors are also dealing with disrupted operations, she said.
On the food processor side, Chad Mann, CEO of ADL (Amalgamated Dairies Limited) on P.E.I., said the company is reviewing the funding program, especially as it pertains to offsetting extra costs to purchase protective gear, screeing equipment and protocols put in place to deal with COVID-19.
The pandemic has impacted ADL and its processing plants in different ways. Mann has seen increases in demand for some products, such as large cartons of milk and butter, and decreases in others, namely coffee creamers and smaller milk cartons for school children. Cheese sold for retail is up, but for food service and to other processors is down signicantly.
For Mann, being the CEO of large company during this unprecedented pandemic has posed some challenges, such as the speed that COVID-19 began to impact the economy in early March. At that time, the company was planning for its second quarter budget. Business was normal and first quarter sales were trending positively. Then a few days later, it was a totally diffent environment, Mann said.
The first couple of weeks was the hardest because of the anxiety and fear from staff coming to work. P.E.I. was fortunate to have managed the pandemic as well as it did. But no one knew that during the early times. Shutting down wasn't really an option given the nature of the business, he said.
"You know, the milk doesn't stop coming," Mann said. "The milk's got to get picked up, it's got to get processed."
Robinson is also concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on farmer's decisions in Atlantic Canada on which crops to plant.
She said we could see lower value, lower risk crops being planted that require less labour.
"And, in the end, deliver less nutrient dense food. You might grow grains for animal feed instead a field of strawberries that would go to your local market," she said. "I don't think people expect farmers to just have blind confidence and move forward in that. I just don't think people realize that is the 'Y' in the road they are standing at."