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Ready, set, grow says federal lender about food sector

Optimism is ringing through the halls of Farm Credit Canada, the country’s biggest agriculture and food sector lender, about the 2021 outlook for the food and beverage industry.

Increases in disposable income, as well as money some people have saved during the pandemic, means sales will rise an estimated five per cent, says the organization.

I’m sure this will be welcomed by the struggling food service industry. Understandably, it’s been frustrated by the many stops and cautious starts it’s had to live with since the pandemic.

And new know there are some that just couldn’t hang on. For them, this will be bittersweet news. FCC points out that sadly, the pandemic has brought losses that can never be recouped.

But, it says, the pandemic has also “opened a floodgate of opportunities” for Canada’s food and beverage sector to further take its place as a driving force in the nation’s economy.

It’s clear the outlook report was written before this week’s dismal news about more restrictions on travel, shopping, dining and all the freedoms we normally have laid at our feet.

But behind the scenes, reasons for optimism have been growing for years. For example, more than 30 per cent of processed food and beverage sales have gone to exports in the past five years.

That’s encouraging. Exports can really help a domestic industry grow…not as much as support from within, of course, not as much as if someone drives or walks to your business and buys something. But the pandemic has forced us to buy more online, and as businesses make the adjustment to market their goods virtually instead of in-person, the world – including the export market — opens up even more.

 “The food and beverage processing sector showcased its resilience by adapting to the evolving trends and challenges posed by the pandemic,” says FCC chief economist J.P. Gervais. “Government investments in food security and safety, along with low interest rates, a weak dollar and strong demand for healthy and high-quality Canadian food, could be the catalyst the sector needs to lead Canada’s economic recovery.”

Let’s hope so. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

People in institutional food services are worried – as in wringing-the-hands, up-at-night worried – about where they’ll find staff when things get back to normal. Who, they wonder, will be the front-line cooks, the servers, the clean-up crew? 

Recruitment has always been on restaurants’ minds. But reports out of the U.S. show how desperate the situation has become. Taco Bell, for example, is holding well-advertised interviews in two weeks in parking lots, and candidates don’t even have to get out of their cars. It’s said the company is trying to hire 5,000 people in a single day.

And before food even gets on our plates, there are the ongoing challenges of trying to find people to help farmers grow it, harvest it and process it.

Those challenges escalated over the past two weeks in Norfolk County, when the local health unit there decided provincial guidelines to protect temporary international farm workers were inadequate.

Angry farmers there wondered why their area was being singled out, and further, how they were supposed to make adjustments at this point, when workers were starting to arrive from abroad. Their frustration boiled over in the form of a tractor-led protest with 200-plus farmers and the creation of a new grassroots group, Farmers of Ontario’s Garden.

The agri-food sector is complex and often troubled. When one part of it is functioning well, it seems another part faces huge challenges. That’s certainly where we find ourselves today.

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