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Pandemic planning: Groundwork

What will Canada's food system look like as we roll toward 2021? And how will you be able to build on those changes to make the family farm more resilient, more sustainable, and a better business?

Resilience has two halves. The part that automatically comes to mind is the way a truly resilient business can take a punch without shutting down. It can survive a bout of bad weather, bad markets, a black swan.

But there’s something else too. It isn’t just that a resilient farm keeps breathing. It’s that a resilient farm is quick to get back into action. It finds new opportunities, it employs new strategies, it finds new partners.

In a way, every farm across Canada was in the same place back in January. No one anticipated COVID-19.

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Now, nine months later, each farm has to make its own decisions. The search is on for ways to reshape the supply chains that connect the farm to the market, and also for better ways to simultaneously play defence and offence.

Below and in this issue’s series of articles we look at answers that are emerging. 2021 is almost here.

Peggy Brekveld was one of tens of thousands of farmers across Canada who watched and waited and worked on her farm while the global pandemic raced across the globe. It wasn’t business as usual for the Brekvelds, who are dairy farmers near Thunder Bay. Yet, in a way, it was, too.

“Cows still had to be milked. We still had to get seed in the ground and do the regular field work,” says Brekveld.

In late spring, with the warped reality of crisis in full bore across Canada and the rest of the world, Brekveld, who is also vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), sat down to write a column for her organization.

“If there is one thing that has remained constant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote, “it’s that farmers are experts at adapting to evolving situations and persevering through uncertainty.” The rest of her piece presented findings from a survey that had gone out to OFA members periodically through the spring, asking how the economic shutdown and other aspects of the health crisis were playing out on their farms.

Farmers described an “ability to move forward and conduct business in a crisis environment,” wrote Brekveld, but the vast majority also indicated they’d suffered negative financial impacts, plus a significant piling on of stress due to the uncertain business and social environment.

Across a diverse agriculture, the pandemic’s impacts have varied tremendously based on what commodity the farm grows, where it gets its labour, whether there’s a marketing board to equalize the pain, and so many other factors.

But as for returning to business as usual, the OFA’s membership overall estimated that it would take about three months to get back to their pre-COVID-19 numbers.

That’s if the pandemic ended today. And if Canada can go back to business as usual. Which is quite a question.

The new normal

After these roiling months of change and uncertainty, a “new, if, as yet undefined normal” is what most see ahead.

Answers are emerging, such as from a series of formal dialogues begun earlier this spring by the Canadian Agri- Food Policy Institute (CAPI).

In early April it released the contents of what it calls the digital dialogue it held with supply chain participants to hear more about how the sector was faring as the COVID-19 crisis advanced, asking about immediate issues affecting the system’s resilience, as well as longer-term threats to supply chains.

Then, in May CAPI and the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute (ARI) also jointly launched Growing Stronger, a national project seeking a diverse range of views on the question of how to build more resilient food systems in Canada. The sessions will continue into the fall through an online portal and series of virtual consultations, with the goal of developing draft conclusions and recommendations for CAPI’s 2020 Big Solutions Forum.

What was evident early in the crisis is the same thing Brekveld described happening on the farm — a swift adaptation to an evolving situation. A whole lot of utterly heroic effort went into fast pivots across supply chains, which in turn kept grocery store shelves stocked and food on the tables for the majority of Canadians.

But there were also significant strains as, literally overnight, the food service industry shuttered, consumers dramatically shifted their food consumption patterns, and the effect of the shutting down of processing plants due to the spread of the virus among workers were felt right back to the farm.

What’s needed now is a fulsome debate on what’s been learned from these jolts, and what can be done to strengthen Canada’s capacity for future emergencies.

COVID-19 has brought focus to problems evident before this shock to the system and which need addressing in readiness for the next one, says Don Buckingham, who has just stepped down from his role as CAPI CEO and president.

Agriculture’s labour shortage and reliance on offshore workers, and a lack of redundant capacity in the processing sector, are clearly two of those key vulnerabilities, Buckingham says.

“The most critical bottleneck point has been in industries dependent very much on a labour situation which they have relatively little control over,” he says.

The labour kick

The horticultural sector took a severe blow as the seasonal workers it has relied so heavily on for planting and harvest could not come into Canada. It has become a sort of a case study of a sector able to produce abundant, safe, affordable food domestically, but highly dependent on a workforce of temporary foreign workers to do it.

Last year Canada had record numbers of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) enter the country so travel restrictions preventing their arrival in spring of 2020 hit not only Canada’s vegetable and fruit producers, but producers of all kinds, as well as the secondary agricultural sector, such as meat-processing facilities.

Meat processors’ problems were also compounded by disease outbreaks at key processing plants, and faced massive logistical challenges to pivot their production away from restaurants and institutions to service high-demand retail channels.

This isn’t the first shock the Canadian food supply has had. Nor will it be the last, of course. The spectre of other future globally disruptive events, including other pandemics, natural disasters or geopolitical threats, is always with us, and more groups like Buckingham’s say we need to learn lessons from COVID-19’s effects on the Canadian food system to be better off the next time.

The new balance

A key theme already emerging from the CAPI and the Arrell Food Institute dialogues is to find ways to address agriculture’s lack of redundancy in areas such as processing plant capacity.

Our systems have been built to operate with great speed and efficiency, and to operate on economies of scale, but as the plant closures illustrated, those strengths can seem pretty empty when something goes wrong.

What the Growing Stronger dialogues are hearing is that the task ahead will be to find how to strike a balance between efficiency and redundancy, says Buckingham.

“Redundancy means if something goes wrong you have Plan B. I think COVID has really accentuated that we need to understand that Plan Bs are not inefficiency, they are actually building resilience into the system.”

The Growing Stronger dialogues are looking at ways we’ll adapt our food system and find new approaches for producing and processing food, says Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

“For me one of the strengths but also one of the weaknesses of the current way of producing food is just-in-time supply chains,” he says.

“We don’t manage much inventory. We focus on low cost. We focus on extraordinary levels of efficiency. And it has given us very affordable, very safe food which is to be celebrated.

“What has also been revealed in the last four months is that what we haven’t got is what some people are now calling the just-in-case food system, or a food system that can function just in case bad things happen… a supply chain is broken, or a pandemic affects our ability to bring in foreign workers.”

The much-intensified labour shortage, as border closures kept out thousands of off- shore seasonal agricultural workers became a reality check for agriculture.

Agriculture’s chronic labour shortage was well known before the crisis, but it has really ramped up the public conversation about dependency on foreign labour, and all the issues and complications that emerged this spring as fewer workers arrived, and critical time-sensitive seedling, planting and harvesting, and processing could not occur.

There are absolutely no easy answers to the labour issue, says Fraser, but what COVID-19 has made very evident is how much of Canada’s food system relies on not only these seasonal workers, but on grocery store clerks and those who work in meat packing plants, and who drive the trucks. Further, it’s shown how a lot of this labour is poorly compensated, or lacks job security or immigration status.

Will automation solve everything?

Catalyst for change

Events like pandemics are catalysts for change, and more jobs performed by robotics and fewer human hands may ultimately be an outcome, Fraser says.

“We know for instance that European meat packing plants are generally smaller and highly automated. My understanding is that they don’t use as much labour. We could see that kind of transition happening in Canada.”

So, yes, automation is likely part of the answer, especially where it converges with data science to increase system efficiency.

But we can’t forget that this in turn will increase the need for new skills, requiring schools to retool their programs to train agriculture’s future employees.

Of course, there is an opportunity too. “If we play our cards right as a country,” says Fraser, “we could become major technology exporters, and I think that’s an area of significant economic opportunity.”

Even in the best case, though, that switch won’t get flipped overnight, and, as Fraser also points out, it will be a huge transition for rural Canada and for our schools.

Long-term, it also raises questions about the thousands of workers who depend on the incomes earned from their seasonal, manual-labour jobs here.

“Maybe we can consider it’s not really our problem, but that’s not appropriate,” Fraser says.

There is no question that the effects of a global crisis like COVID-19 strike everywhere.

Every household

Every household, and every business, and every person with a job linked to Canadian agriculture will feel it at some point.

How well the rest of the world recovers in a post-COVID-19 world will be critical because for an exporting nation, a world where millions have lost incomes and livelihoods isn’t a planet growing wealthier and upgrading its subsistence diets.

Another of CAPI’s initiatives this spring has been to partner with the U.S.-based Farm Foundation on managing agricultural trade in an increasingly chaotic world.

Its virtual series with experts from around the world speaking on Canada’s role in the international trade system and issues related to global food security was posted this summer on CAPI’s website.

The impact on the most vulnerable has already been felt by Canadian households experiencing food insecurity.

It isn’t because Canada’s food system isn’t working.

When you don’t have money, food can be expensive, despite all the tireless efforts to keep the cost of producing it low. That’s as true globally as it is here at home.

Back in Thunder Bay, Brekveld knows how COVID- 19 is having an impact on farm households across the OFA membership, and Canadian farmers in general.

Canada’s food system is interconnected, but the base of that system is primary producers, and how they fare, and how well agriculture is poised to weather this storm and beyond depends on the stability of their incomes, she says.

Farmers will remain buffeted by trade disruptions and trade war winds, increasing tariff protection and other serious business risks they have no control over.

“We’ve come through a lot. I will not lie, some farmers will not make it through. They will perhaps exit the industry,” she says. “But as a whole, ag in Canada is here to stay.”

What may emerge from this is a new public consciousness about agriculture and food security, and she’s been heartened by the new connections she’s witnessed made between farmers and consumers these past months.

“I think people were looking for shorter value chains,” says Brekveld. “They wanted fewer hands to touch their food. They want to know the producer. I think this is a strengthening of the local food system in the long run.”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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