Low-down On the Farm: The More Things Change, the More They…?

As Will Rogers famously said, “The farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn't still be a farmer.” Who else would throw millions of dollars of seed, fertilizer, and other inputs onto the ground, only to stand back and pray for rain?

This coming season will test farmers’ optimism like never before. In addition to the array of usual challenges — weather, pests, diseases, market disruptions, interest rates, machinery breakdowns etc. — the Canadian agricultural community will continue to deal with the effects and disturbances associated with COVID-19.

Despite the challenges and health concerns posed by the pandemic, however, many farmers are optimistic about what 2021 may bring, fuelled by strong commodity prices and the rapid emergence of vaccines. And industry seems to feel the same way; a recent Agri-Marketing survey found that around 75% of respondents have an optimistic outlook for their organizations.

As we have followed the effects of COVID on the Canadian agricultural sector over the past twelve months, including on the economy, the food supply chain, and food security, an interesting dynamic has emerged. While farmers are typically quite conservative and at times slow to change, they have been quick to adapt to the obstacles and restrictions posed by COVID, coming up with innovative ideas and solutions to meet the challenges of the day. All in all, the 2020 agricultural “season” was a success, despite the unanticipated challenges posed by COVID. As always, our farmers came through with flying colours!

Heading into 2021, it’s interesting to reflect on which aspects of COVID adaptation have a chance to remain as standard practices post-pandemic, and where the industry is likely to revert to its more usual ways of doing business. Very little empirical research and few quantitative studies have been completed on this issue to date. For a more in-depth look, we reached out to a panel of industry leaders with a simple question: “In Canadian agriculture, what lasting changes do you anticipate coming out of our current situation?”

Our expert panel includes:

Here’s a synopsis of the areas where they tended to concur. Additional thoughts from individual panel members are available at the close of this article.

Food security is national security

The single, most immediate and most compelling consequence of the pandemic was a real-time demonstration of the critical importance and integrity of Canada’s food supply system. Often misunderstood, ignored, or criticized by average Canadians long removed from the farm, the food supply system has proven to be robust and secure in feeding not only Canadians, but also people across the world throughout the pandemic. While sporadic shortages of some commodities in the early stages (eggs, bananas, whole wheat flour) did occur, in general, empty shelves were the exception, not the rule. As well, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s work in processing environments became more effective and efficient. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention.

Lasting change: Renewed consumer interest and engagement around where their food comes from may provoke better understanding and more positive dialogue about agriculture’s role in feeding Canadians and the world. An increased focus on food security — who has access to food, how food is supplied, and food waste — may also gain importance in government policy priorities. Overall, agriculture’s ability to step up and deliver under pressure should earn the sector some positive credit in the bank of public opinion. Groups like the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity will have a unique opportunity to take a larger role in promoting a positive dialogue around agriculture and food. The government may also begin to view agriculture in the same way it does national security and energy self-sufficiency — as an essential industry.

The importance of front-line workers

Disruptions to the workforce were felt immediately in the processing sector, later in primary agriculture, and eventually across all aspects of the agri-food system. A bright light was shone on all front-line workers, but specifically on the critical role that temporary foreign workers (TFWs) play, as well as their vulnerability.

Lasting change: Going forward, Canada must and will work to address issues such as gaps in the agri-food labour force and the need for a national labour strategy. Safety and compensation for TFWs must improve on both human rights and food security grounds. The federal government recently committed $2.18 million to support and assist temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the agricultural sector. Post-COVID, expect TFWs to have easier access to jobs in Canada, better working conditions, and hopefully reasonable compensation. They are an integral part of the overall Canadian agri-food system.

Remote working is here to stay

As with many sectors, working from home-based offices became much more common in agriculture. Input suppliers, the farm finance sector, government, and even the very traditional farm retail segment took a more flexible approach to where work is performed. For example, farm retail, with its long-standing belly-to-belly, in-person approach to sales and agronomic support, moved to more Zoom-type meetings and home-to-customer sales calls.

Lasting change: Working remotely and connecting virtually offers cost benefits and can be an effective way to gather with large audiences and connect with individuals from remote communities, other provinces, or even other countries. From a government perspective, it also allows representatives from the agricultural community to connect with elected officials more directly and more regularly, instead of scheduling a trip across Canada to the Hill once a year. We expect many companies and individuals to go back to more traditional, office-based work environments gradually. Still, we also suspect there will be a stickiness to this, with more hybrid home/office options being offered to employees. A key component to this will be universal access to high-speed internet/broadband, which we cover next.

Universal access to rural broadband is imperative

As Cathy Lennon, general manager at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, noted in our January Blog, while rural broadband has been an issue for farmers for some time, it came to light for the general public as business executives, university professors, and others were challenged in a way they never were before — trying to work remotely, often from rural settings. The result wasn’t always pretty, which has caused Industry and government to look at expediting universal access to this ‘mission critical’ resource.

Lasting change: One likely positive to come out of the pandemic will be more rapid rural broadband availability than would have otherwise been the case. In November, the federal government announced a $1.75 billion investment in rural connectivity, and the CRTC offered the $750 million Broadband Fund. Major players like Telus is also aggressively getting into the game, as are smaller, regional players with a rural focus, such as North Frontenac Telephone Company. For farmers and others in rural settings, the future should be connected!

And the best of the rest — insights from individual panel members:

  • Mental health – The impact of COVID will be lasting. For many, depression is setting in and requires reminders and self-realization to manage it and build diversity into routines. This is bigger than I thought it would be – particularly in an industry that is having overall success. The good news is that people and agencies are giving mental health a higher profile.
  • Rural will be more popular – Rural communities are becoming more attractive destinations to work and live. This influx should strengthen rural communities, although the related increase in property values is not making everyone happy. As a proxy, farmland values continued to grow in 2019 (the last year we have reliable data), with 2020 expected to be even stronger — great if you’re a seller; tough if you’re a buyer or renter.
  • Trade shows – Virtual is a poor substitute for the real thing. Look for in-person trade shows to bounce back big-time once things normalize. People seem excited for any excuse to get together, even if only for a coffee or tea at Timmies. This could also lead to a surge in coffee shop meetings and related business/social gatherings post-pandemic.
  • Curbing travel – Travel is currently near zero in ag. Expect a slow restart even once vaccination programs are implemented. The consistent message that we are hearing: “Did we really need all of those face-to-face meetings? This seems to be working.” Expect more virtual meetings to allow an increased number of attendees without excluding those who cannot attend in person.
  • Ongoing logistical problems – Distribution, shipping and logistics have become even more critical as economies begin to re-start. Consumption of non-crop-related items is driving shortages in shipping containers and methods of transport, creating small but sometimes challenging delays and difficulties.
  • Zoom exhaustion – Many people and groups are putting on webinars and other sessions, with strong attendance and participation. However, just as many people find this type of meeting can be quite exhausting, and often these meetings can be seen as an opportunity to multi-task (especially in one-sided presentations).
  • More partnerships & alliances – A possible lasting effect of the pandemic will be greater cooperation among the primary agriculture sector, government, NGOs, and food companies to reduce food insecurity in Canada. (This is a topic we covered in our January Blog.) The pandemic showed the cracks in the system and the need to have a concerted effort to advance things like school food programs to reduce the number of Canadians who struggle to access healthy food.
  • Increased self-reliance – The pandemic may encourage farmers, industry, and government to put greater emphasis on increasing processing capacity in Canada and to be less reliant on sending raw agricultural products to the US for processing. This will take time and ingenuity to sort out, but should ultimately allow for greater value creation and capture in our domestic economy.
  • Ag will push the economy forward – Before the pandemic, several studies (including the Barton Report) highlighted the agri-food sector’s potential to help drive the Canadian economy. The pandemic has further emphasized the ag industry’s potential to spearhead economic recovery and lead to a much more resilient agriculture and food system in Canada. Many of the issues that have been simmering under the surface and were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic are now being addressed in a positive and proactive manner.

We will continue to monitor these trends and report back. Here’s to a great #Plant2021!

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