Initially, the pandemic forced a quick rollout of emergency programs and temporary policy changes to support the agriculture industry. Now almost a year later, the focus is on actions and initiatives that will strengthen and stabilize the industry in the long-term.
This year’s Scotia Horticultural Congress, held virtually January 25 and 26, covered key topics related to farming and production both for Nova Scotia growers and the rest of Canada’s agricultural producers.
The two-day event, hosted by Horticulture Nova Scotia, promoted the theme of “Sowing Efficiency; Reaping Success” with an agenda filled with engaging speakers, a tradeshow and sponsor support.
“This was a unique year for us, as for the first time we took our annual event fully virtual,” said Marlene Huntley, executive director of Horticulture Nova Scotia. “Though there were challenges, we also saw great opportunity, as we were able to have attendees, exhibitors and speakers from across the country participate in our congress who normally might not travel to Nova Scotia in January.”
One of the sessions featured a panel discussion on agricultural labour in 2021. Panelists included Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food; Steven West, director of sector policy for Employment and Social Development Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program; Keith Colwell, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Agriculture and executives from Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.).
The discussion comes at an important time as new travel restrictions may create barriers for migrant farm workers preparing to come to Canada for the 2021 growing season. Last year saw a 14 per cent drop in temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in the country. This lack of skilled labour put pressure on farmers and producers.
The new mandate requires travellers coming to Canada to have proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their flight departure. The charge for the tests in most places falls on the worker.
Speaking to these new restrictions, Carrie Raymond-Gardner, Program Coordinator for F.A.R.M.S. noted that in Mexico, home for more than half of Canada’s TFWs, testing would cost around US $150.
“It’s not as expensive as we initially thought it would be, however it is a significant cost to the worker, especially if the results don’t come back in time for their flight.”
Some Caribbean countries, due to their smaller size, have more cohesive testing plans, whereas Mexico is still building its strategy. “Because Mexico is made up of such large states, some workers can live up to 12 hours away (from the airport), and their tests could expire before they get to the airport” for their flight, said Raymond-Gardner.
She added that the country is getting better and better at congregating their workers to get testing done and the Ministry of Health will try conducting testing in Mexico City going forward.
West also offered reassurance, explaining how Canadian immigration services work closely with officials in Mexico to facilitate a smooth flow of migrant workers. This occurred pre-COVID-19 and continues now that pandemic restrictions are in place.
Prime Minister Trudeau recently announced that international travellers are now required to quarantine in a hotel for up to three days upon arrival at their own expense to await COVID-19 test results. This does not apply to essential workers, including migrant farm workers, who will be able to wait for results and fulfill their 14-day quarantine on-farm.
Restrictions today don't apply to essential workers, incl. those in #CdnAg, who will continue to need a pre-✈️test & quarantine upon arrival.
Working with all partners, we'll ensure they can continue arriving safely.
— Marie-Claude Bibeau (@mclaudebibeau) January 29, 2021
The Labour in 2021 panel outlined the ongoing efforts from federal and provincial ministries as well as associations to increase budgets in an effort to mitigate the challenges created by the pandemic.
This response includes programs like the Emergency On-Farm Support Fund, as well as policy changes for essential travel, farm worker health requirements and extended visas for seasonal workers.
As the pandemic continues, so have the efforts to meet the needs of the agriculture and horticulture industry. For example, Minister Bibeau highlighted the Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program, whose budget has been increased from $50 million to $85 million for 2021. The program offers employers up to $1,500 for each seasonal migrant worker to cover quarantine and isolation costs.
Along with adapting emergency policies, the federal representatives made it clear that they are preparing for the industry’s long-term future. The focus is now on programs and initiatives that go beyond COVID-19 response, including worker accommodation and housing requirements, risk management programs and sustainability.
Farm Workers Housing
In the fall of 2020, West and his team at the Temporary Foreign Workers Program consulted employers, associations, provincial governments and migrant worker support organizations for feedback regarding a draft of new federal requirements for farm labour accommodations.
“(The consultation) will help us reach our goal of having more consistent and higher quality accommodations for temporary foreign workers in agriculture across the country,” said West.
West’s team is currently in the process of analyzing the 135 comments they received and they plan to provide recommendations for a new set of requirements this spring. Implementation of the new Housing Standards Review will not take place until next year.
West explained they want to ensure that employers are not subjected to unexpected requirements that would be damaging to the sector.
“Our objective has been to make substantial improvements to the requirements and the clarity of what we ask employers to do for accommodations for the 2022 season, and we may be looking at a gradual implementation.”
Risk Management and the AgriStability Program
The impacts and disruptions caused by COVID-19 exposed the need for risk and crisis management plans across industries.
In keeping with the theme of supporting a stable agriculture and horticulture industry, Minister Bibeau discussed the government’s recent effort to make changes to the AgriStability program.
“To keep businesses strong in 2021 and beyond, you also need strong business-risk management programs. Our government is proposing changes to AgriStability that would increase payments to farmers by 50%. That could put an extra $170 million per year in producers’ pockets. I’m working with the provinces and territories so we can get improvements in place for farmers as soon as possible.”
AgriStability’s purpose is to protect Canadian agricultural producers from large income declines that would threaten their farms. Those wishing to participate in the program have to enrol and pay the program fee, and would then be eligible to receive payments should their production margin fall by more than 30%.
Bibeau’s proposal would remove the referential margin limit (RML) – which will make more funding available to farmers – and increase program’s compensation rate from 70% to 80%.
The share of payments for the program, however, would remain the same at a 60-40 split, with the federal government covering the larger share while provincial and territorial governments contribute the rest. This means that additional costs for the proposed AgriStability changes would require both levels of government to increase their respective contributions.
In order to move forward, the majority of provinces and territories will have to support Minister Bibeau’s proposal. Some provincial governments are hesitant to support the change, citing the higher cost as a deterrent. Others are in support of the program, seeing it as an opportunity to support and sustain producers not just during the pandemic, but during future risks, environmental, social or otherwise.
Minister Colwell voiced his support during the seminar, “I think it’s going to make a great difference for farmers in Nova Scotia.”
Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs joined Minister Bibeau in a statement, released a week before the Congress, urging other provinces and territories to support the changes to AgriStability so that critical help can be given to Canadian farmers.
During the Labour in 2021 panel, Minister Bibeau also addressed the industry’s efforts to combat climate change.
“Our government is supporting you with an investment of over $350 million towards agri-environmental programs to help farmers access the latest environmental practices and technologies,” stated Bibeau.
Environmental sustainability is a key component in a strong agricultural industry. Farming is directly impacted by the effects of climate change. Droughts, storms, heatwaves and an increase in insects and pests are all possible challenges that come with the changing environment. Promoting sustainable agricultural practices and advancements is critical for long-term success.
Bibeau did not go into details about the investment during the seminar, but according to a statement she made during an online session with the Canadian Farm Writers Federation, the $350 million will be available through the National Climate Solutions and Agriculture Clean Technology programs.
It is clear from the presentation at the Scotia Horticultural Congress that the focus for government and industry partners goes beyond 2021 and COVID-19. These programs will help support farm workers and producers and build an economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture industry.
For more information on the #ScotiaHorticulturalCongress 2021, visit horticulturens.ca
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.