COVID-19 weighs heavily this spring in farm country

By MPP Toby Barrett

Soil temperatures, soil conditions, weather forecasts, commodity markets, availability of labour, and the restrictions of COVID-19 weigh heavily this spring in farm country.

COVID-19 is life changing for all and certainly for the business of farming. Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and I, as Parliamentary Assistant, have been actively engaging stakeholders.  It’s been one of the busiest times in my recent memory – but helping keep Ontario fed and functioning is worth the long days and nights.

COVID-19 has caused a significant disruption to our food supply chain particularly with milk, cattle, and hogs.

To set the stage, most understand where food comes from, but not all:  a constituent asked why not donate surplus hogs to food banks. Although thoughtful, food banks can’t accept live hogs, they require processing. And processing capacity is down.

Accordingly, a recently-announced federal package provides money for beef and pork producers for animals they can’t sell; a $50-million fund to purchase and deliver food to food banks; and, a diary industry credit program – as part of a $252 million agriculture and food industry aid package.  Prime Minister Trudeau also allotted $77 million to help keep food processing workers safe using protective equipment and physical distancing strategies.

Here’s an abridged list of provincial efforts:

We’re supporting Ontario’s vital dairy sector. Licenses and certificates for dairy plants, bulk tank milk graders, plant milk, cream graders, and shopkeeper distributors are being extended until 90 days after the lifting of Ontario’s emergency orders.

We are seeking solutions to food system labour challenges committing up to $1 million helping to match workers with farms and agri-food businesses. And we’re helping the sector provide more food online withup to $2.5 million to help expand e-business.

 Following a request by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, we’re extending production premiums due in May until June 30, 2020.

 We’re partnering with the Canadian Government to provide immediate support to the Agri-food Sector with intakes funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).

We are extending Risk Management Program (RMP), AgriStability, CAP Dairy, and Provincially Licensed Abattoirs enrollment and intake deadlines. We’ve extended to June 30, 2020 the CAP program application deadline for Ontario’s provincially-licensed abattoirs and provincially-inspected diary plants.  A grant of $150,000 will help train inspectors of meat, dairy, and livestock to continue operation of provincial plants.

To deal with this virus, the Ontario Food Terminal is receiving $350,000 for enhanced cleaning and screening.

Beekeepers will know we are temporarily making the apiary registration a one-time process as opposed to annual, and we are extending permits.

I should add that it’s not only been Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs that has taken necessary action in response to COVID-19, ministries across the Ontario government have also been providing assistance to the agri-food sector. 

The Ministry of Transportation has exempted agriculture and agri-food items from the seasonal road restrictions in the spring.

The Ministry of Environment has extended licences from the Ontario Pesticides Education Program to December 31st, 2020.

And the Ministry of Energy has extended the time-of-use electricity rate relief for families, small businesses, and farms through May 31, 2020.

Plenty done. More to do.

Good luck to all farmers this season. Stay healthy, physically distance but no need to socially isolate – our future depends on you.

Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk