Though much of the ag industry can carry on business as usual, protective measures currently prevent many seasonal ag workers from entering the country
By Jackie Clark
Yesterday, Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in Ontario, mandating the closure of most non-essential public and privately owned gathering places, in light of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are taking this extraordinary measure because we must offer our full support and every power possible to help our health care sector fight the spread of COVID-19,” the March 17 statement said.
For most people in the ag industry, work can continue as usual.
“As far as operating business, (COVID-19) is not really interrupting. Certainly, we’re asking our membership to take all the precautions to minimize their contact with people to protect themselves,” Keith Currie, OFA president, told Farms.com.
However, the closure of the Canadian borders to anyone who is not a citizen, permanent resident, or U.S. citizen, announced on Monday by Prime Minister Trudeau, could cause serious labour shortages.
“Now that they’ve sealed off the borders more or less to everybody but the U.S., we’re concerned about not being able to get temporary farm workers or seasonal ag workers into the province, which was going to start happening over the next month,” Currie said. “That could potentially have massive impact, especially on the horticultural sector.”
The uncertainty around the ability of farm workers to come into the country adds anxiety to an already tense time.
The situation “is starting to cause some mental stress on people. But we are continuing conversations with the federal government to see if we can find some resolve to this, and ways that we can get those workers onto our farming operations, not only in Ontario but across the country,” Currie said.
Gatherings of more than 50 people in one place are discouraged, and so many agricultural meetings and events have been cancelled, and large offices have their employees working from home where possible. Currie doesn’t expect this situation to cause problems in the ag industry.
“A lot of organizations, including ourselves, have cancelled events because it’s the right thing to do, but business is still happening,” he said.
That reassurance should be welcome news to consumers, as people across the province have been panic buying groceries and other supplies.
“We’re not short on food in this country. We’re going to continue to have trucks delivering to grocery stores,” Currie said. “We have a robust food system here in Ontario and in Canada. The stores will not be empty. We’ll be fine going forward and we’re just going to have to get through this.”
For now, agricultural markets have been relatively stable.
“To this point, we haven’t really seen agriculture commodity markets take a big hit, it’s more on the financial side of things,” Currie said. “Because food is an essential product, we know that the stability will be there.”
Agricultural markets “tend to fluctuate more when there’s a disease outbreak in a particular commodity or a massive weather event” that causes a shift in supply or demand, he added. With COVID-19, a human health concern, supply and demand for food stay relatively constant.
Though an interruption in agricultural production is not expected, some farmers and commodity groups are making contingency plans in case a disruption in the supply chain occurs.
“We’ve just gone through two recent rail stoppages … we had to adjust on the fly during those so I think, out of that (situation), people found mechanisms to continue to do business and not have an interruption be too massive,” Currie said.
“As an export nation, we need to make sure that the goods are still flowing. The fact that we’re able to still move things into our largest trading partner in the U.S. – that’s a positive,” he added.
Anyone who is self-employed is bound to want to have a plan in place in case of unexpected obstacles, Currie said. Commodity groups and farmers have been preparing for “what-if” scenarios because they’ve been real over the past several months.
“I think that’s where the farm organizations also come into play, to represent the larger masses, to find resolve in a much quicker way with different levels of government,” Currie explained.
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