Farming and COVID-19: 'The time is now' to support Ottawa Valley agriculture

·3 min read

Empty shelves at the grocery store, products out of stock, the soaring price of fresh produce and meat products: that was our “wake-up call” that we have to take the food industry seriously.

“We need to make sure we have a system that will always be there and can always supply food: enough farmers, enough processors, enough distribution systems that we don’t run into food shortages. We take food security for granted,” said Craig McLaughlin, a beef farmer from Renfrew county.

Often faced with the unpredictability of Mother Nature and “geopolitical” turmoil, including the rail blockages last year and China’s recent suspension of canola, soy, beef and pork products, farmers often end up paying the price, explained Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“The other aspect to agriculture that people don’t understand is that we don’t get to set the price on our product. We are price takers, not price setters. Any time there’s an expense (such as the carbon tax), we can’t pass that on. We have to absorb that,” Currie said.

The pandemic has also exposed challenges such as labour shortage.

“(It’s) not just a lack of people, but a lack of people with skills to operate machinery,” said Debra Hauer, a labour market intelligence manager at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) in Ottawa.

“We did a 10-year labour forecast for the country up to 2029. Even with 60,000 temporary foreign workers, there will be 16,500 unfilled vacancies in agriculture, with an estimated loss of sales at $2.9 billion,” Hauer said.

“We understand the frustration of the industry. It is a pervasive shortage. Our role is to help employers develop their skills in terms of recruiting and retaining (farm) workers,” said Jade Reeve, agri-jobs manager at CAHRC, an organization focused on addressing human resource issues in agriculture.

CALL TO ACTION

“The time for farmers to really have the general public with us, to get us the tools we need — is now,” Currie said. “We need society to put the pressure on the government, to make sure they’re taking care of agriculture.”

“Everybody has a role to play: government, educational institutions, industry, farmers’ associations, individual farmers,” Hauer said.

Tyler Armstrong, a sheep farmer from Renfrew, suggests reducing “red tape” for abattoirs (slaughterhouse for livestock) and meat processing plants to reduce wait-lists of up to six months. “I’m sure there are a few things (the government) could do to reduce the burden for abattoirs,” he said.

Angie Hoysted, co-owner of Valley Custom Cutting, a meat processing plant in Smiths Falls, said “there’s next to no schools teaching (meat processing). They need to put ‘butcher’ back on the list of trades, and give them support like other trades.”

Reeve talked about a government program running until May 2023 called ‘The Agri-Food Pilot program,’ which helps address labour needs and provides a pathway to permanent residence for experienced, non-seasonal workers in industries such as meat processing.

“There are lots of interesting jobs in agriculture that are year-round, full time and have benefits,” Hauer said. “It includes jobs in greenhouses, pig farms, dairy farms, chicken barns, egg farms and service jobs such as fixing and manufacturing farm equipment and supplies.”

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

“I’m very hopeful and optimistic about agriculture in Canada: there is room to grow in a variety of ways. The opportunity is there, and the future is bright,” Hauer said.

Currie said agriculture is recession-proof and that “there’s a real opportunity for agriculture to be a real economic driver. Let’s put our heads together to see how we can capitalize on these opportunities, to have all our tools in place to make sure that we can drive the economy coming out of COVID-19.”

For more information about Agri-jobs and the Agri-Food Pilot program, visit https://cahrc-ccrha.ca and https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/immigrate-canada/agri-food-pilot/eligible-industries.html.

Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Smiths Falls Record News