Jeff Nielsen farms near Olds, Alta.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that farmers were disappointed with Tuesday’s emergency-funding announcement for agriculture by the Prime Minister.
Disappointment would suggest we expected more support from the federal government to begin with. Those of us who have been in the business long enough to survive a few economic cycles stopped expecting things from the government long ago.
A more accurate description of our collective response would be dejection and exhaustion. We feel like we have been abandoned.
The $252-million funding announcement failed to address the needs of Canadian farmers and was simply not a surprise for those of us who have been around awhile. Worse, half of that funding was already budgeted for existing programs, meaning most of this isn’t even “new” money.
Some people thought that our current global pandemic might highlight just how important our industry is to Canada and how critical is it to have and maintain a stable and safe domestic food system. After Canadians felt the very real threat of food shortages in recent weeks, there’s no way the government can continue to ignore the voices of farmers and the urgency of their requests for systems that will allow them to do their jobs, right?
Some people believed that. I don’t want to call them naive, so I’ll say they are optimistic.
What they might not know yet is just how far farmers, like me, are from Ottawa. They might not understand that, despite the fact that our industry contributes $111.9-billion annually to Canada’s economy and 2.3 million jobs to our work force, our voices don’t matter as much politically.
Perhaps they think that when the Prime Minister says he “understands” and “appreciates” the work we do, he means it. Maybe he actually does.
But for those of us who have seen this play out before, this pandemic has really only highlighted issues and constraints that have long existed for farmers in this country. For several years now, we have been asking the government for help dealing with the increasing number of factors outside our control within a non-functioning value chain.
We have asked for help enforcing existing trade agreements and addressing ongoing barriers for exports to key markets. We have asked for recognition of all the innovative and effective steps farmers are taking to offset carbon emissions. We have asked for business risk-management programs that actually work for farmers.
We have asked for timely and consistent rail transportation for our crops, to ensure that our products can actually move and that we protect our reputation as a reliable food supplier to the world.
That help hasn’t come. Instead, our industry is suffering at unprecedented levels.
All of this is happening at a time when we are seeing some of the greatest drops in net farm incomes in Canadian history – and, relatedly, a record debt load for farmers. Farm income in our country fell by 45 per cent in 2018. I don’t expect the 2019 income numbers to be any better. Due to last fall’s early snow, a lot of crops were left out in the fields over the winter. Those crops will be of poor quality and will be worth much less than if they had been harvested in the fall.
At the same time, some of our biggest export markets, such as China, India and Saudi Arabia, have all but closed their doors on Canadian crops in recent years – largely due to diplomatic failures from our government. We are seeing a rise in non-tariff barriers in an increasing number of countries that represent significant export-market opportunities for Canada’s grain growers. Commodities such as soybeans, wheat, barley, pulse and canola are either directly hit by trade restrictions or have had to endure the economic ripple effects of trade wars between other countries.
And last year, after one of the worst harvests in recent history, farmers were hit with a carbon tax just as many of them are required to dry affected grain to prevent it from spoiling. Around the same time, an eight-day rail strike and ensuing illegal blockades caused major delays in moving grain and caused major damage to the Canadian brand.
Let me be clear about something. My cohorts and I are not asking for handouts. I became a farmer because I love the job, not because I thought it would be easy.
Farmers have always had to be adaptable and resilient. We face so much uncertainty when it comes to things like weather, cost of inputs, market volatility. And not surprisingly, there are mental-health concerns in our community: As The Globe and Mail reported last year, 58 per cent of farmers meet the threshold for anxiety, while 35 per cent meet the standard for depression.
What we are asking for from the government is help in building and maintaining a value chain that lets us do our job and support producers during extreme circumstances.
We are asking for a partnership. We are asking for our contributions to be seen and valued.
Once again, that support didn’t come. And I, for one, am exhausted.
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