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Canadian farmers warn they may ‘sit out the season’ unless government aid guaranteed

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April 17, 2020

Canadian farmers are warning that their fields could fall fallow and their crops left to rot this summer, resulting in potential food shortages and higher prices.

In a news conference Thursday, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture said farmers need reassurance that government financial aid is coming, or else many will abandon the 2020 growing season.

“This is a potential tragedy, one Canada cannot afford,” CFA president Mary Robinson said. “We do not mean to create panic. At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to sound the alarm about the realities Canadian farmers are facing.”

The agriculture sector is now at a tipping point, Robinson said, with farmers facing complications with migrant labour and unexpected costs for things like personal protective equipment. With all the uncertainty, some farmers are considering switching to growing soy beans for animal feed — which take less money and labour than, say, tomatoes.

“What we’re hearing some farmers say is: It’s too risky. I think I’m just going to sit this one out,” Robinson said in an interview. “If a cherry farmer has a COVID breakout on his farm the week before he’s meant to start harvest, and he’s invested millions and millions and millions of dollars in that crop, what happens to him?”

The CFA is calling on the federal government to start an emergency fund, to guarantee farmers a financial backstop in the event the coronavirus crisis interrupts their operations.

In a statement on Thursday, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office said the farm sector is “a top priority” and welcomed the CFA recommendations. But the minister’s office also pointed to previously announced benefits to the sector, including $2 billion in deferred loans for food producers and processors. CFA, however, argued that cash-strapped farmers can’t afford to take on more debt.

“There are countless of other ways behind the scenes we are helping ensure our food supply chains remain strong,” the minister’s statement reads. “Of course, we recognize that our government has more work to do.”

We do not mean to create panic

The crisis has exacerbated the labour shortage in Canadian farming, which relies heavily on temporary workers from Mexico and the Caribbean. Earlier this week, Bibeau announced $50 million — $1,500 per worker — to help farmers with the cost of housing and paying temporary labourers during the 14-day quarantine required after they arrive in Canada for the growing season.

“This is a good first step,” Robinson said. “Much more needs to be done.”

With some temporary foreign workers unable to travel to Canadian farms during the crisis, the industry projects more than 20,000 job vacancies this season. And without people in those jobs, “we face the possibility that crops will rot in the fields,” CFA said.

The federation said it’s working with the government to incentivize the millions who have been laid off in the current lockdown to consider working on farms. But historically, long days picking produce in fields has been a difficult sell for the increasingly urban population.

P.E.I. Sen. Diane Griffin is urging the government to sweeten the deal. In a letter to the agriculture and employment ministers earlier this month, Griffin and 21 other senators propose allowing laid-off Canadians to work on farms and in food-processing plants without losing their employment insurance or their Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit. And if someone doesn’t qualify for those benefits, including students, the senators suggested paying them a grant equivalent to the $2,000 monthly CERB payment.

“This is a dire situation,” Griffin said in an interview on Monday.

The CFA said Thursday that in discussions with government, it was proposing an incentive program “that’s not completely out of step” with Griffin’s idea.

Bibeau’s office didn’t say whether the government was considering the proposal, but noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that all workers in Canada can now earn up to $1,000 a month without any clawbacks to their CERB or EI payments.

But Griffin said it’s time for extraordinary measures.

“Money is an important motivator,” she said. “We’ve got to get us Canadians into the field.”

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