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Why $252 million for farming and food is only a start

On Tuesday, about an hour after the federal government announced a $252-million, pandemic-related aid package for Canadian farmers, Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, Ernie Hardeman issued an editorial praising farmers.

His message was not connected to the federal announcement, but it made an important point.

“During these unprecedented times, Ontarians have been reassured by the fact that our agri-food sector continues to bring food to our tables,” he said. “Everyone working hard to make that happen deserves our utmost thanks. From transporting food, to making sure grocery store shelves are full, to planting this season’s crops – you are an inspiration to us all.”

He couldn’t be more right. While at various times we’ve wanted for some commodities, for the most part, our food needs have been met by our farming and processing sector.

The same day, University of Guelph farm and food system economists Mike von Massow and Alfons Weeksink noted in an essay about food and the pandemic, we also have cheap food.

“It doesn’t always feel like it, but Canadians spend among the lowest proportion of our income on food in the world,” they say.

Indeed, if you live in a remote community, or if you’re relying on a food bank now, statistics be damned. We have a huge problem with food access equality.

But in any case, farmers keep on producing, even when the chips are down. Over the past two years, they’ve been hit with tumbling prices, terrible weather conditions for planting and harvest, and a brutal trade war. Their response? Ask for help and keep on producing.

Now, they’re victims of their own determination.

Driven to the brink by the COVID-19 pandemic, they have finally said they can’t take it anymore. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says farmers are going to lose $2.6 billion this year because markets for their products have changed so drastically. Estimates from various industry analysis say Canada could lose 15 per cent or more of its farmers.

And at a time when we are legitimately worrying about our domestic food supply, this is unthinkable. We should be helping farmers produce more, not less.

For all these reasons, I have to believe that Tuesday’s federal announcement of disaster relief for farmers was an important start – but only a start.

First, it was targeted almost exclusively to the livestock sector. There’s no question those producers certainly need the money, as does the processing sector that supports them.

But even then, the federal money only covers a fraction of the losses they’re predicting. Pork producers alone say they are going to lose $675 million this year. And the beef industry has been in turmoil for months. Farmers don’t expect Ottawa to fully cover their losses. But they are definitely looking for something more helpful.

And for the crop sector … well, the 28,000-member Grain Farmers of Ontario organization minced no words in this response to the federal announcement from its chair, Markus Haerle.

“Grain farmers in Ontario are facing an unprecedented $550 million in lost revenues,” he said. “Over 67 per cent of our farmer-members are worried about their farms’ ability to survive this crisis and its aftermath. The federal government has ‘targeted’ groups without understanding the full picture. Our Prime Minister and his government are asking grain farmers to bear the costs of everyone having enough to eat.”

So we can only assume that federal support for other industry segments, such as grain farmers, is on its way. It must be. The agriculture industry is broad, complex and couldn’t be more vital to society. The government has opened the vault for other groups, and now’s the time to do so for farmers, too.

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