By Tim Kalinowski
A survey created by the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan reveals some of the effects COVID-19 is already having on the province’s agriculture sector, but also points to a general sense of anxiety felt by farmers already facing a late spring, unharvested acres left over from 2019, and general market uncertainty.
APAS president Todd Lewis says the more recent COVID uncertainties add to the pressure cooker being experienced by the province’s agriculture community at this time.
“Certainly the COVID-19 situation has added to the uncertainty– not only in the agriculture economy, but in the economy as a whole,” says Lewis.
“It was already kind of a perfect storm before, and now with the weather concerns and the COVID-19, it’s almost unprecedented in a lot of farmers’ situations. Farmers are resilient, and spring is always the time for optimism. But it sure is tempered this year, for sure.”
He says top of mind for most farmers right now is the persistently cool spring which has delayed normal seeding on the farm in most cases.
“Unfortunately in a lot of Saskatchewan, some of the highest percentage of crops left out had higher levels of snowpack in (mid-April), and were actually gaining snow,” he says.
“So it’s a concern. And certainly in the southwest part of the province, it’s not unusual to have tractors out in the field this time of year.
“It’s going to be a late spring; so that makes for a prolonged harvest that’s already well past where it should have been ready to get cleaned up.”
Lewis says farmers are going to have to make some tough decisions about those unharvested acres very soon: Whether to try to harvest them or just write them off and plough them under to get spring seeding underway.
“Crop insurance in Saskatchewan said it will deal with it on a case by case basis, and I think producers need to talk to crop insurance and see what can be done to either harrow it down or work it down, or in some cases it might even have to be burned where they put a match to it,” he says.
Crop insurance will undoubtedly provide some financial relief for farmers with crops still left in the fields, but Lewis says more needs to be done to assure farmers other financial assistance will be provided by the province and federal government to backstop agricultural operations.
“We are going to have disruptions and hiccoughs on delivery as we go forward into spring seeding,” Lewis predicts.
“We expect some shortages from the manufacturers down south could be an issue as well. And we’re seeing it in the livestock side as well with the processing plants having COVID disruptions.
“Credit and cashflow is always an issue, and any time you have uncertainty producers are feeling the pinch.”
“If producers don’t have the money on hand,” he adds, “it’s pretty hard to spend it on putting the crop in. The new FCC program announced earlier (in April)– is that money accessible for producers? As well as credit lines with the banks and financial institutions? We are listening to producers and passing those concerns along to government.”
Besides COVID, spring seeding, and financing concerns, about 51 per cent of producers, according to the APAS survey, are also feeling the strain from poor or inadequate digital service or cell service in rural areas.
Part of this strain is due to long-standing issues with an infrastructure deficit in these respects which farmers have been complaining about for years, says Lewis, and which have been aggravated by the current situation.
Driving into town to do normal business isn’t as much of an option this spring with social distancing and isolation concerns keeping many businesses and institutions closed to the public; and not to mention having kids at home trying to engage in online learning adding to the demands of an already inadequate system.
“It has been an ongoing problem,” Lewis confirms, “and this COVID situation has just put the spotlight on really how poor service is in a lot of rural Saskatchewan. In the last month here, we have heard reports of huge extra charges for some producers on their cell phone bills because that is the only access they have to digital.
“They have such poor internet service, they have to pay roaming charges, and it could be very expensive.
“We’re talking about bills in the thousands of dollars.”
And compounding all these issues is the question of labour availability, says Lewis.
“I think on the labour side, we’re going to need a lot of Canadian people to work in agriculture over the coming months,” he states. “And it is an opportunity as the economy has slowed down to be able to provide good jobs for Canadians.
“I think we need governments to come up with ideas on how to incentivize Canadians to come work on farms. There is a real opportunity, and a real need too.”
Lewis says the coronavirus outbreak has emphasized in many Canadians’ minds both the strengths and vulnerabilities of the national food system. And he hopes, if there is a silver lining in this situation, that there may be opportunities to use this new awareness to encourage the creation of better programs and policies which support long term Canadian farm security.
“I don’t think it is a stretch to think about the food system in Canada in a lot of ways is going to be like the medical supply industry,” he says. “If masks and gowns and gloves for the medical profession are not produced in Canada, there might be a pretty good chance Canadians won’t have them available to them. I think the same is going to ring true in the coming weeks and months with a lot of our food supply: If we can’t produce it in Canada, it may not be available for Canadians.
“As Canadians, we are not used to seeing empty grocery shelves. I don’t think it’s time to panic about our food supply, but at the same time it is important that Canadians are comfortable and we make good plans going forward to ensure we do have a good food supply.”