Agriculture was never going to get a blank cheque

Opinion

Progress throughout history has never been linear and, often, a jarring event is needed to force us into facing uncomfortable truths about our own failures. That is not an indictment, but more an acceptance of the reality that progress requires understanding where we’ve fallen flat and then seeking to improve.

There was much gnashing of teeth on the backroads of Canada this week when the Liberal government announced their support package for the Canadian agri-food value chain. At first blush, critics of the government have plenty of fodder. How is it that one of the largest industries in Canada, one that sustains over 2.3 million jobs and contributes $112 billion to the GDP, only managed to get what could be called a rounding error in the total amount of public stimulus dollars being doled out during COVID-19? The number is absolutely inadequate to fix all that ails the food supply chain.

However, that attitude fails to recognize the role we collectively played in the genesis of this underwhelming package, and demonstrates a tone-deaf response to the hardships being faced by millions of Canadians outside of our industry.

Let’s take a moment to consider what is going on outside our sphere. For many across Canada, this has not just meant a slowdown or a challenge to “business as usual,” it has been a complete shutdown. It’s expected that the next jobs report could show a total of 5.5 million jobs having been lost due to COVID-19, and an unemployment rate of 20%. An argument could be made that we in agriculture are fortunate. Many of us have some degree of job security while Canada as a whole faces a long road of economic hardship. This is not to suggest that we aren’t facing challenges, but perhaps we can recognize we are not unique in that regard. Farming is extremely volatile, yes; but long-term net farm income trends demonstrate that it has become a lucrative calling.

There are real and present dangers to many farmers across Canada right now. This pandemic has taught us that we need a more resilient food supply-chain. Livestock producers face backlogs and are running out of time to solve the logistical puzzle of animal movements. Grain farmers face continued trade dysfunction and market upheaval, while labour shortages plague fruit and vegetable growers.

We need a system that can withstand shocks more robustly than is currently the case, and the $252 million announced this week will be grossly inadequate to address these structural issues. But perhaps it can be the 2”x 4” to the head we need if we are going to restore effective pan-commodity lobbying for our interests in Ottawa.

Regardless of the challenges we face, it is overly simplistic (and lazy) to blame the Liberals for the underwhelming funding envelope released this week. Pointing the finger at politicians ignores the role we played in failing to design policy options that were both politically palatable and possibly effective.

Asking the federal government for a $2.6 billion slush fund without providing a detailed description of tangible plans for how that fund would be used had no hope of success. Yet that is exactly what the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) did. We were given a golden opportunity to reshape our food system, and to address structural issues that have plagued the agri-food industry long before COVID-19.  As I see it, this opportunity was squandered by an inability, or unwillingness, to understand modern political realities. The CFA ask did not give a tangible plan to keep food out of landfills, nor did it lay out how we might harness the newly unemployed population to address labour shortages that exist across the supply chain.

If we look critically at the federal announcement, the funds are structured in a logical manner to deliver practical results. Half of the funds are setup to bolster existing BRM programs, while the balance will support the processing sector and the purchase of surplus foods. Yes, the dollar figure is too low, but it takes political acuity to capitalize fully when asking for government support. In times of crisis there is a window to understand what the government is willing to fund, and then to tailor an ask appropriately to maximize public investment in your cause. This didn’t happen.

Going forward, the challenge is two-fold. First, we need to help the federal government understand that further intervention is needed if we are going to alleviate backlogs without putting food into landfills. Second, we need to abandon the notion that we are entitled to have blank cheques sent to the farm mailbox ever again. Ad hoc payments in agriculture are a parasite to progress and add minimal long-term value. Restoring reference margins in the AgriStability program to 85% would respect the diverse nature of Canadian agriculture entities, and protect competitive farm businesses without distorting the marketplace.  COVID-19 has caused thousands of Canadian businesses to fail, and agriculture does not deserve special status protecting us from this upheaval.

Farm leadership struck out this week. They failed to understand how the current welfare of their membership stacked up against the average Canadian and, worse yet, they did not demonstrate how our industry can drive economic recovery. Millions of Canadians have lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands of businesses have been forced to close.  It is time for our farm leaders to abandon the idea that farmers deserve a profit just for showing up, and instead be the driving force that snaps the Canadian economy out of this COVID-19 induced slump. Let’s stop playing the victim, stand up, and demonstrate that agri-food can lead the Canadian economy through this challenging time.

3 thoughts on “Agriculture was never going to get a blank cheque

  1. Of course agriculture industry wasn’t going to get a blank cheque. This is because other then those of us in the ag industry no one understands it or really cares about it. The general public’s lack of education about the ag industry and the role it plays in society is pathetic. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering many are learning that it’s one of the most important as grocery store’s shelves are looking bare. We need to seize this opportunity and use it to educate not just the general public but the governments too. Like you stated, we needed to not just ask for the help but to detail exactly what and how we needed it.

    Your correct when you say it’s lazy to point the finger at the the Liberals, as the blame can’t be placed on just one group or government. This is an issue that has been brewing for decades. With the “big is better” mentality of the world, the ag industry was pushed to this result. The old saying is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” but we’ve literally done just that. Having only a few bigger and bigger animal processing plants has lead to the backlogs. We let this happen when we didn’t argue and push against the regulations and company buy outs that pushed us to having only a few plants. This is because all of us get caught up looking at the dollar value instead of looking at the over all stability of the industry. It’s absolutely up to those of us in the ag industry (as there are less and less of us every day) to do our due diligence and ensure we have a profitable and stable industry going into the future. One that encourages those not born into the ag industry to join and thrive. We have to change the assumed pretense that farmers are stupid and worthless that the general public holds. Society depends on us, as without us there is no society.

  2. This is a populist government. It has concentrated on workers and students etc. A because they have great need B because they are a large amount of votes. This government has done a poor job of supporting business overall, ag is just an example. This is because we as business owners are a smaller voter segment. The programs they have rolled out have been poorly designed as they are hard to qualify for. Until a crises affects the larger voting population the liberals are not going to notice. Any notice agriculture has had so far is not because the industry has raised concern, but because the public has walked into stores and found shelves temporarily bare. Unless those shelves are empty for more extended periods and the public has to shell out larger amounts of scarce $s I dont expect much action, just talk and grandstanding in front of voters to give the impression of action.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful article. Many good points to ponder here. Things that come to mid for me are:

    -More cohesive advocacy efforts are needed. We fragment ourselves into too many groups and commodities for government to understand and act on effectively. Until we get our act together, we can easily be put on the back burner.
    -Investing to spread our risk both in supply and customer base (aka resiliency) is a strategy that would resonate. Farms need to do this. Food processors need to do this. It is possible.
    -Your suggestion about restoring reference margins in the AgriStability program to 85% is likely a good one (I don’t know the details well enough) but we need something like this…a clear ask that can encompass all farms (rather than something for this sub-sector and something for that sub-sector…).
    -I think we can demonstrate that agri-food can lead the Canadian economy through this challenging time, I sense this is happening in the West but we have not done this well for Canada overall or in ON/QC (where the biggest job losses have been)

    Also, I am grateful to work in agri-food. We are still in business and getting ready to pivot. But many fellow business owners in my area (Ontario), both urban and rural, are struggling to figure out how to re-start or re-build their business. Just ask anyone who a payroll service to pay their employees…these services are overrun with requests from businesses letting staff go (either lay off or permanent). It will be a long climb out this situation for many Canadians.

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