As farmers in Ontario gear up for a long dark winter, eight months into a global pandemic that has devastated livelihoods, we might assume that spirits are low, but a simple survey proves otherwise. Conducted by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the survey found farmers’ attitudes regarding the future of the farming have improved since Spring 2020 while acknowledging there are still challenges ahead.
Survey Results, in Brief:
The good: One-third of respondents have experienced positive benefits this season, including new customers, increased consumer interest and awareness, new direct/online marketing opportunities, increased sales, and in some cases, reduced expenses.
The pandemic has created opportunities for innovation. Online farmers’ markets in British Columbia are one example, and traditional food delivery via e-commerce is another. Agricultural producers who were able to capitalize on the Canadian trends of supporting local and online shopping have seen good success. A willingness and readiness to pivot to new strategies is essential since “the pandemic has sped up the adoption of technology in the agricultural industry as farmers spend more time with digital tools and programs.”
The bad: The survey revealed that 60 per cent of Ontario farmers are concerned about a global recession, 55 per cent are concerned about financial impacts to their farm businesses and 52 per cent disclosed their concern for trade and supply chain issues.
COVID-19 changed operations across industries, causing new concerns and intensifying existing ones. For the farmers who responded to the survey, almost half of them (43 per cent in total) cited the inability to proceed with business as usual as their top problem. For many, altering daily routines to accommodate new safety and health guidelines meant increased expenses. That, coupled with reduced sales to due restaurant closures, has meant many farmers are seeing significant decreases to their income this year.
In a written commentary, Hugh Simpson – an OFA Director – says that “while we have seen great improvements in the anticipated negative outcomes of the pandemic, many farms and local businesses are still struggling with reduced prices, decreased consumer sales and the absence of agritourism.” He ends on an earnest but hopeful note, “We understand that even though we’ve seen improvements, there is still a long way to go on our road to recovery.”
To enable this recovery, government and third-party investors in the agricultural sector have set up programs and services to help Ontario farmers. One of numerous financial aids provided is the Canada United Small Business Relief Fund (CUSBRF). Small businesses (including farmers) can access grants of up to $5,000 to offset costs related to personal protective equipment, physical modifications to businesses to meet health and safety requirements, and/or adopting digital technologies to move more of their business online. OFA also launched the Feeding Your Future project, a network designed to connect job seekers who have been laid off due to COVID-19 (e.g. restaurant staff) with farmers and agricultural producers who need staff.
It’s easy to see the upsides and downsides across the industry. As 2020 draws to a close, the OFA community of more than 38,000 is gearing up and feeling confident to face the challenges that 2021 may bring.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.