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A temporary foreign worker from Mexico plants strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., on May 6, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy, and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, at Dalhousie University.

When the Canadian Federation of Agriculture laid out a $2.6-billion ask last week to help farmers endure the COVID-19 pandemic, they were setting the bar very high. And so it is little wonder that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Tuesday announcement of a program worth barely $252-million sent the farming community reeling.

Fair enough. The funding announcement was indeed underwhelming, and it will not be enough to get some of those on the precipice to stick around. Many will exit the industry, regrettably. Our preannouncement estimates were that as many as 15 per cent of our farms could be lost by year’s end due to COVID-19; Ottawa’s plans will not change that.

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The $125-million program to support livestock raises a variety of questions. Executing the program will take time, something producers do not have. Few details were given about the role of provinces or how much farmers will receive. The measures presented will likely not prevent more animals from being euthanized in the days to come. Along with milk dumping, COVID-19 is serving up case studies on a silver platter for animal-rights activists. It’s a shame that our farmers have been put in this position.

Losing farms will not compromise our nation’s food security, however. Farmland doesn’t just disappear, as it can always be exploited by someone else. But the most significant concern is how we can create jobs and wealth in rural economies located far from urban centres. This should be a priority; occupying our vast nation’s topography should be top of mind, from coast to coast to coast. Ottawa doesn’t show that it cares for rural communities enough – or for agriculture, for that matter – but it should, before it’s too late.

Its response to farmers pleading for help was unsurprisingly slow as well. In the United States and Europe, most governments have provided pandemic-related financial aid directly to farmers weeks ago. In the United States, every American is providing $86 in support for agriculture by way of government-sanctioned programs; in Europe, it is over $90 per capita. Here in Canada, each of us giving six measly dollars to support agriculture. Farmers have every right to be disappointed.

There were interesting elements to the plan, and Ottawa should be credited for these. The recognition that the Canadian Dairy Commission is the ideal agent for dealing with surplus production was accurate. The $100-million credit given to the Crown corporation responsible for making sure that milk surpluses are managed properly was a very good decision.

The other interesting and surprising aspect was the $77-million allocated to expand domestic processing capacity. The agrifood sector cannot be vigorous without a reliable, strong food-processing sector, but we’ve rarely seen Ottawa recognize the sector as being worthy of investment. It is now incredibly anemic and in crisis; in fact, it was in a crisis when we first entered the pandemic. The sector has lost 12 jobs a day, every day, since 2012 – around 35,000 jobs – and barely anyone has spoken about it. Weaknesses in processing will always arise in times of crises, like COVID-19, and this sector – the cornerstone of any food-supply chain – is desperate for more attention.

But high expectations will only ever bring disappointment. Ottawa presented a decent plan, a measured one – one that Mr. Trudeau said was just a first step, and hopefully that is borne out. It was unrealistic to expect so much from a government obsessed with city-slicking ideas. Under its regime, pet shops have a greater chance of survival than some farmers.

Still, the program provided by Ottawa gives a sense of what needs to be improved. It supports the food-processing sector in its efforts to keep employees safe at work, and improves the mechanisms by which spoilage at farmgate can be strategically repurposed. These are all good signs for the future.

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Ottawa needs to make sure that fewer divides exist within the food chain. Farmers should care about processors, and vice versa. The same goes for the rest of the chain, as is the case in some parts of the world. Much work is still needed.

The biggest divide remaining, though, is entrenched in most policies we see coming out of Ottawa, including this most recent announcement. But knowing how our rural and urban divide can skew everything, $252-million for farmers is a decent start. The failure may have been to expect more in the first place.

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