Low-Down On the Farm: Agriculture – The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same. Or Do They?

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across all elements of society, and none more so than the business community. Virtually all businesses are feeling the effects of the fall-out from the pandemic, including those in agriculture. Many face severe financial consequences, like restaurants, movie theatres, bars, malls, retail stores, recreational facilities, health clubs, and so on. Others, though, are likely doing better than before the crisis - think of the companies that produce hand sanitizer, medical masks and supplies, and distribution companies like Amazon.

When society normalizes, it is unclear how many of these businesses will emerge weaker, stronger, or not at all. In fact, the term ‘normalize’ is likely subjective in and of itself. No one really knows what the post-COVID-19 normal will look like.

Agriculture is unique as an industry, in that time is of the absolute essence. By its very nature, agriculture cannot stop, furlough, or even pause in place. Each spring, farmers dust off the planters, seeders, sprayers and other gear to get their crops in the ground. Nothing has stopped this annual rite of spring – not the Great Depression, world wars, previous pandemics, or economic collapses. So while planting and seeding will no doubt happen this spring, the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the agriculture sector are largely unknown.

The experts weigh in on the future of ag in a post-COVID world

I recently polled a group of highly respected and experienced agriculture professionals for their thoughts on two topics; one thing that will permanently change for Canada’s agri-food sector post-COVID-19, and one thing that will not change.

My virtual panel included Darren Dillenbeck, FMC Canada country manager; Dr. Owen Roberts, director of research communications at the University of Guelph; John Jamieson, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity; Senator Robert Black; Warren Libby, past president of Syngenta Canada; Ferdie Schneidersmann, retired agriculture executive; Doug Foley, director of digital strategy at Giant Goat; Crystal Mackay of Loft32; Kim McConnell, former AdFarm CEO and Member of the Order of Canada; and Jay Bradshaw, former president of Syngenta Canada and current GP Principal at Ag Capital Canada.

I have randomized the panel’s responses to preserve anonymity, and also on the off chance that not all of these sterling predictions come true! Otherwise, their answers are unedited.

What’s one thing you think will permanently change for Canada’s agri-food sector post-COVID-19?

  • We are truly only two weeks into this for most ag people; many were in denial at the start, especially in rural areas. This came to a crashing halt on March 16th when most of the industry started reacting quickly and putting work-from-home measures in place. We are already seeing remote working habits develop from office staff and field staff – they are getting used to conducting a full call on the phone. Some are good at it, some are likely improving, but overall they feel like they are gaining ground. Several examples of our people sharing skills they knew from before on telecommuting with retail staff who were working from home. I expect we are going to see a push by office staff to stay at home even once we return to “normal”. More requests for working remote and less travel overall. I do anticipate that our global and domestic travel policies will tighten, although we have not discussed this yet – when you think about it, it makes sense as we will have limited awareness of how well-controlled other regions may be, even long after the recovery.
  • There will certainly be lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope one is the realization that stakeholders and members of Canada’s food system need to unite to share the story of how Canada has one of the best food systems in the world and was stable when Canada needed it to be – as always. This experience of a global pandemic allows us to realize just how important public trust is in our food system. When Canadians trust their food system, they can focus on the things in their lives that require their energy, knowing they can feel confident that their food system will always support them in the way it should to feed themselves and their families.
  • Support for and emphasis on the most productive ways to produce food (this will likely mean more support for biotech.)
  • Canadians will no longer take their grocery requirements AND our domestic and global food supply chains for granted! Food and grocery supply chains will have to work much harder, more effectively and more efficiently to keep consumer confidence going forward.
  • Regulations enacted to ensure that agri-food, especially upstream production, is more secure. For example, ensuring minimum stocks on hand at any moment in time for key inputs such as fertilizer, seed, essential crop protection agents, etc. Where and how this is done will have to be determined.
  • There was a study done recently, which stated that by 2030, over 50% of the workforce is either going to be working remotely or part of a gig economy (freelancers or paid contractors). This will likely make it even harder to find talent willing to work in food manufacturing and minimum wage jobs, with opportunities for people to do more desirable work and have the time freedom to do more of what they love.
  • The ability to reference empty grocery store shelves for the first time in our lifetime. This context put food security on the radar for many Canadians and will serve to elevate the value of our country feeding itself, and the ‘buy Canadian’ brand in the future.
  • The amount of business conducted online from groceries to bull sales.
  • Modifications to global, regional and local supply chain links. Anywhere there is concentrated human labour involved in food processing will need to be modified. This means locally (livestock processing, fruit/vegetable processing) and globally, where all our major raw commodity exports out of Canada are processed.
  • A heightened interest in biosecurity. The public will be more demanding about how and where their food is produced, how it’s processed, and how it’s distributed. This will create an opportunity for producers and processors who can demonstrate they understand the importance of food safety. Post COVID-19, the consumer will pay a premium for what they consider to be ‘safer food’.

What’s one thing you think will not change post-COVID-19?

  • A return to field visits and face-to-face with customers will come rushing back. People are social creatures, and I know I am getting itchy feet. Once we take the reigns off, folks will be finding every excuse to be on the road. That social aspect is huge in ag, and I think we took it for granted.
  • Unfortunately, I think some consumers will quickly forget how COVID-19 threatened food security and the measures the agri-food sector took to ensure food continued to flow, and go back to advancing a style of production that is out of touch with modern science and technology.
  • The need for production efficiency because consumers will still zealously pursue inexpensive food.
  • Canadians will continue to expect a broad domestic and global food supply through a cheap Canadian food policy. Farmers and farm families will bounce back and continue to show resilience on the other side.
  • Annual production cycle and off-farm distribution of finished products to consumers. There may be an improvement in efficiencies, but food has to be produced and moved along the supply chain from on-farm to processing, shipping and distribution.
  • While the border closures may limit the movement of migrant workers, we will still require people to harvest crops and move products, which will require a different workforce. It is unlikely we will have a complete robotic production.
  • Farmers are still price takers. Supply chains are designed for competition with narrow margins. Unless there is a fundamental values shift, buyers will resume buying low-cost options for the most part, once market disruptions are normalized.
  • We will all still want to eat!
  • People need to eat. Farmers have always been the unsung heroes, and post-COVID-19, they will be recognized as the “heroes”.
  • The trend towards locally-grown plant-based foods as an alternative to animal-based protein will continue.

We will certainly check back in a year and see how our prognosticators did. For now – stay safe and be well. And please be aware that slower-moving farm vehicles will be on the roads in the coming weeks as spring activities kick into gear in the countryside. It’ll take more than this to bring the agriculture industry to a halt!

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