Remember when COVID-19 restrictions started and food hoarding left grocery shelves empty? No meat or chicken, no eggs, no flour, no yeast. Most of us feared these shortages might continue and, thankfully, they didn’t. But will they happen in the future?
Remember when the two largest beef packing plants in Canada that process 70% of the Canadian market were closed due to high rates of COVID-19 among workers? We panicked again at the thought of no steaks or hamburgers for our summer barbeques. Though supply righted itself fairly quickly, costs have soared. ($40 for a small roast beef? Ridiculous.)
Remember watching the news and seeing milk from dairy farms being poured down the sewer or the country’s largest processor of potato products holding a “fry day” to get rid of their surplus? We learn that this is happening because Canada’s restaurants, which account for the bulk of potato sales, are in large part, closed and exports to other countries have slowed to a trickle.
We wanted the surpluses to go to food banks, but it seems they can only accept a little at a time and some have stopped accepting perishable goods entirely. We’ve seen the surpluses result in erratic pricing in grocery stores – hamburger at a higher price than steak, and bargains like shrimp skewers for $1.00.
And now it’s springtime to plant, harvest early crops, raise livestock born during the winter. What will happen next?
Most agri-industry experts say the news looks grim as farmers and ranchers cut back on their usual production. They are short of farmworkers to help with planting, maintenance, and harvest. In a normal year, Canada’s food supply chain relies on bringing in 60,000 skilled temporary foreign workers (TFWS) for farm work. This year, the federal government is only allowing 37,000 of these individuals into our country. They must be quarantined for 14 days on arrival at the farmer’s expense. Measures to protect worker health, including temperature checks and sanitizing equipment and buildings, add time and cost. And some of these workers arrive with COVID-19, adding additional costs for health care and the need to quarantine them a second time. Farmers have received provincial and federal support to help with some of these costs but the pandemic has seriously disrupted farm operations.
According to Agriculture and Agr-Food Canada (AAFC), as of May 17, 2020, approximately 25,627 TFWS are in Canada. With some additional workers expected by month’s end, AAFC forecasts Canada will have 74% of the skilled TFWS for May compared to the numbers for May 2019.
Looking ahead, many more skilled workers are needed for harvest. Analysts predict that the result could be food shortages and spiraling prices this winter that may continue for a year or more.
So, what can the average Canadian do to help reverse these trends? The biggest solution is for Canadians who are unemployed or underemployed to step up to the plate and work for pay on a farm. It’s working in Britain where they have resurrected the Land Army approach used during World War II where thousands of city folk streamed out to farms to provide inexpensive labour. Yes, they had the added incentive that they were safe from bombs in a rural area and they were helping their country win the war effort. But it’s working again today. Approximately 83% of the people now hired as farmworkers are residents of the UK.
It is more difficult to motivate Canadians who are unemployed when many receive federal payouts like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). There is honourable work out there on our farms. If you step up, your contribution will help make Canada’s food chain more independent, and reduce food shortages and higher prices, which will benefit you and your fellow citizens in the long run.
Yes, the work is hard and the starting pay of $14-$18 per hour is fairly low. But according to the Federal Government’s Job Bank, highly skilled and experienced farm workers can earn as much as $26 per hour. Earlier this spring, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada launched a new job portal called Step Up to the Plate. There are lots of jobs waiting for Canadians with skills and a great work ethic. Check it out.
Aside from the money, think of the personal benefits: you will be more fit than if you worked out in a gym, sport a better tan than any beach or tropical vacation can give you, relieve the mental stress of financial worry and social isolation, learn new skills in an industry that isn’t likely to shut down and, in some cases, receive bonus food products to take home. Still unsure or don’t need the money? Try volunteering. Rather than delivering food to the poor, the sick, or the elderly, you can help grow it.
What else can you do? Buy local. Look for products made in Canada (French’s mustard rather than Heinz products which are processed in India). Lamb chops from lambs raised in Canada, not New Zealand. Wine from the Okanagan and Niagara, rather than the US or Europe. Strawberries from Ontario or BC, rather than Mexico. Most products give the source on their labels or produce stickers.
Buy fresh. Yes, we can only do this seven months of the year at most in Canada (with the exception of organic greenhouses), but there’s no excuse right now. Did you know that most of the mushrooms in cans and many other tinned goods on grocery shelves come in from China?
Farmers’ markets are starting to open, albeit with restrictions. Look online for the ones near you or go to https://www.farms.com/rural-lifestyle/farmers-markets/canada.aspx. Many farmers are taking online orders for pickup or delivery – direct buying, no hefty fees for middlemen, lower prices, and better quality than in grocery stores. (If you’re like me, you’re tired of tasteless grocery produce that is soaked in water so that it rots a day or two after you get it home.) Both of these activities give you opportunities for a family outing and a new experience – something we all crave in these times of isolation.
Grow your own. Backyard and community gardens are springing up everywhere. Raising your own vegetables and herbs won’t help farmers, but it will give you a source of healthy food and reduce your grocery bill. You can always freeze the surplus to avoid the high cost of imported food this winter.
Other ideas? We’d love to hear them. Keeping our country fed and healthy, and supporting our farmers and ranchers is important in the fight against COVID-19. They, too, are an essential service.
Amid COVID-19, Farmwork to Feed Canada works to bring farmers and Canada’s agri-food business sector together with essential workers; foster greater public awareness, understanding, and support for agriculture and agri-food businesses and help educate Canadians about food – from farm to plate – and the important role individuals can play in preserving and protecting the security of Canada’s food supply.
In Britain during the First World War, there was a shortage of farm labour as men were conscripted into the forces. There was also a need to grow more food due to the threat to supplies caused by German submarines. This led to the establishment of the Women’s Land Army in February 1917.
By 1918, there were over 113,000 women working on the land. Female labour alone was still not enough to meet the shortfall in agricultural labour. Prisoners of war were also sometimes used, often working alongside land girls.
Recruitment poster for the Women’s Land Army, 1917.