Alberta government grabs disaster funds for COVID-19, agriculture relief

The Alberta government has fished $153 million out of its emergency and disaster fund to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and help hard-hit farmers.

Finance Minister Travis Toews has plucked $33 million from the $680-million fund to prepare for increased acute care expenses, doctor compensation and other pandemic costs in health, said the minister's press secretary, Jerrica Goodwin, in an email Thursday.

Another $45 million will cover the expected costs of emergency isolation payments the government is offering to people who are receiving no pay and unable to work from home. Many people have been ordered to stay home to prevent the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus or must care for a sick relative.

The government is also handing an additional $74.7 million to the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) to help cover insurance claims and pay income support for producers. The boost is a nearly 25 per cent increase from the $279 million in provincial funding allotted to AFSC in the 2019 provincial budget.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen would not answer questions about the emergency funding at an unrelated press conference on Thursday, saying more information would be coming later.

Rail blockades, rain and freeze caused 'harvest from hell'

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commission, said grain producers need all the help they can get after a fall "harvest from hell."

While drought plagued southern Alberta, central and northern Alberta were deluged with rain.

Will Wang/CBC

A cold snap early in autumn, followed by rail blockades protesting a B.C. liquid natural gas pipeline through Indigenous territory, hampered farmers' abilities to harvest and transport grain, Steve said.

The final provincial crop report of 2019 showed more than 10 per cent of crops were still in the ground or lying flat on the land by December.

In November, Dreeshen said producers had lost roughly $700 million-worth of crops in the 2019 season.

"I'm guessing that what they're trying to do is ensure they have sufficient funds in place," Steve said of the emergency cash injection from the government. Existing programs are likely tapped out, he said.

With low oil demand, Alberta grain is moving well by rail right now, and prices have stabilized, he said. However, the next few weeks will be critical for farmers.

As the snow melts, they must salvage any remaining crops they can and determine if they're eligible for insurance claims.

Pandemic problems could loom

Producers also now face the uncertainty posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As they prepare to seed crops in late April and May, farmers rely on deliveries of fertilizer, seeds and crop protection products.

They're also worried about the possible closure of grain elevators as public health officials tell people to stay home and keep away from each other to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Steve hopes federal and provincial governments act consistently to declare such businesses as essential services, should the pandemic force more shutdowns. 

"If we lose our elevator handling system, if we lose rail service, if we lose port service, it's going to have a devastating impact on farmers who are still trying to convert their last year's crop into cash and use it to finance this year's crop," he said.

Agriculture Minister Dreeshen said Thursday he's requesting the federal government designate all aspects of the food supply chain as essential. This should include producers, suppliers, handlers and distributors, he said.

Further detail wasn't available Thursday on how and where the health ministry intends to spend its emergency funds.