I was scanning through the news last week, and there was a really good transcription of the exchanges during the house agricultural committee with the Minster of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie Claude Bibeau. Some things really stood out to me from the transcript that showcase a problem as it sits today.
What I’ve noticed is that the government in the last six to nine months has not changed any of its messaging when it comes to agriculture. The same things that Ag Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has been saying during this pandemic are the same things she has been saying for six to nine months. Whether its grain, livestock, mushrooms, or fruit and vegetables, the canned responses are the same.
As an example, when asked about support for financially hurt farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Minister Bibeau said that agriculture producers have access to the general Canada Emergency Business Account (the CEBA program), which offers up to $40,000 in interest free loans, $5 billion in loans through Farm Credit Canada, an array of business risk-management programs like AgriInvest, AgriStability, and other loans that are available for most sectors through commercial banks. Conservative Shadow Minister for Agriculture, John Barlow, said most producers do not quality for any of those programs, or the amounts are woefully inadequate — I think Barlow is hitting the nail on the head with that one.
Minister Bibeau said she recognizes the situation for producers as critical, and business risk-management programs still exist (such as AgriInvest and AgriStability), which are jointly managed by federal, provincial, and territorial governments; and producers can also ask for advance payments. Minister Bibeau says she is working to bring additional measures to support the various sectors, but it’s too soon for her to be making any announcements. Bibeau said that farmers should be focusing on accessing BRM programs, though acknowledged that while they may not be perfect, the department is working with the provinces to improve them.
Sound familiar? It’s nearly the same messaging the federal department stuck with going on over a year into the blocked canola shipments to China, and market disruption impacts to pulses, soybeans and hogs.
This is what punting on first down looks like. I don’t put all the fault on the minister; these are the talking points that the government has provided. But they are not changing. They are the same. The question is: is it enough? Is it enough to save some of the livestock sector? The fruit and vegetable sector? The mushroom growers? Is it enough?
Why can’t the government just say “no” to all these requests instead of “we’re looking into it”? Whether it’s the Canadian Pork Council’s request for $20 a head, or the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s request for a set aside program, or the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s request for a $2.6 billion emergency fund, this kicking the can and basically punting the football on the first down needs to stop.
I think what we need is a little more decision making — it doesn’t have to be yes all the time — but at least say no. That’s where we are today. If the government was going to say no on the CCA set aside, just say it three weeks ago. Don’t pretend that you’re looking at it or that it’s a possibility if it’s not. At least with a no, we can move forward. This current inaction in a time of epic crisis should be very concerning to everyone out in the agricultural sphere.
Should we be relying on $5 billion of more debt through FCC? For many in the livestock sector getting through this turn is a major concern and adding debt to the pile may not really assist in the long run. The grain sector is in much better shape with railways excelling with movement, the Canadian dollar falling, and commodity prices performing much better than the protein complex.
Agriculture went from saying agriculture’s important, farming’s important, ranching’s important; and now they’ve changed all that to food and food security — making sure that the grocery store shelves have food. But even that isn’t changing the narrative of the government, and that’s concerning for me, and I think that needs to change here in very quick short order.