No small potatoes: Aid for Manitoba agriculture remains on Pallister’s decision desk

By | May 6, 2020

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian consumers bought enough flour to make mills work overtime and purchased yeast in quantities capable of creating a nationwide shortage

The quarantine baking craze was a logical byproduct of pandemic restrictions on daily life. When people stay home, they have more time to fiddle in the kitchen. When people are anxious or upset, they tend to turn to comfort food.

What’s logical is not necessarily predictable. The disruption in economic activity in Canada has affected food production in an entirely uneven way.

Ontario vegetable growers sounded an early alarm about a lack of access to the migrant labourers who had no problem flying into Canada for planting season prior to the pandemic. Outbreaks of COVID-19 have shut down Alberta meat-packing plants to the point where cattle production is backed up across the country. Many pork producers no longer have U.S. buyers for their hogs.

On the other hand, growers of wheat and peas are happily planting crops they can easily export or place in storage long enough to survive months of market instability.

This uneven agricultural picture is entirely unwelcome in Manitoba, where farmers have already endured a miserable 14 months.

In 2019, canola and pork producers suffered when China temporarily banned Canadian products. Soybean and other farmers then failed to harvest hundreds of thousands of acres of crops after an unusually soggy September.

Soybeans were covered in snow on Charles Fossay’s farm in the RM of Cartier, Man., last fall. Many producers couldn’t harvest after unusual amounts of rain and snow. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

The pandemic has only added to the stress of an agricultural sector that accounts for six cents out of every dollar generated by the Manitoba economy.

“I would suggest that these are some of the most difficult times that we have been in, especially in light of the risks that we take and the exposure we have to financial obligations,” said Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

He fears some potato, pork and cattle farmers won’t survive the pandemic, thanks to a glut of supply and minimal demand.

“If we don’t see the movement of of cattle and hogs through the processing sector, there’s no room for them in the facility come the fall time or even August,” he said.

Farmers faced with nowhere to sell their beef and pork may simply stop producing it, as some already have. That, in turn, will affect feed production, Campbell said.

“If there are no animals eating grain, where does that grain go? So then you know it just snowballs and continues on.”

Cattle production has slowed due to a bottleneck: COVID-19 infections in Alberta plants. (Patrick Foucault/Radio-Canada)

The prospect of financial ruin for individual operations is bad enough. But the big picture is potentially more worrisome, as it’s not easy for Manitoba to bounce back from any reduction in the collective capacity to produce food.

For example, it took about a decade for Manitoba’s cattle industry to recover from the BSE crisis in 2003.

On Tuesday, Ottawa announced $252 million to assist farmers across the country. It’s unclear whether Manitoba will announce aid of its own.

Premier Brian Pallister said on Tuesday he didn’t have time to digest the announcement.

“Support for the agricultural sector is needed — that it is a tremendously important sector to not just the Manitoba economy, but the Canadian economy. And I know that we are all going to do better when farmers do better,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

If there’s one group of voters Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives can count on for support, it’s rural Manitobans who work the land for a living.

Never mind a yellow dog. In southern Manitoba constituencies like Midland or Morden-Winkler, the Tories could run a coronavirus-infected horseshoe bat and still collect more votes than the NDP, Liberals and Greens combined.

Nonetheless, the premier has yet to reward the ag sector with an appreciable form of pandemic aid.

“Because we all know where the pockets are deeper, we have done some of our job by raising the issue with Ottawa repeatedly,” said Pallister, persisting with his pandemic strategy of deferring to Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland.

“I have certainly raised the issue on our calls with the prime minister and the deputy prime minister.”

Hog producers are running out of places to sell their animals. (Submitted by Paul Larsen)

The premier can not be blamed if he doesn’t want to scatter loonies in the soil. Strategic thinking is required to assist the agricultural sector, as there’s no guarantee export markets for commodities such as pork will return to pre-pandemic levels.

A post-pandemic economy where Canada consumes more of its own food is not just plausible, but probable. This may require more food-processing plants on Manitoban soil.

“Should there be more? Probably yes,” Campbell said. “That’s what will help achieve a greater value for agriculture in Manitoba.”

It will take years to develop more processing capacity. Some growers and producers are concerned about surviving the next few months.

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