COVID-19 has impacted the 60,000 Canadian families that raise beef. Outbreaks in meat processing plants, rising production costs and difficulty getting beef to market may result in some Canadian ranchers pulling the plug.
In a normal year, Canada loses between 5 and 6 per cent of its farms. Sylvain Charlebois, Senior Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University spoke at a Canadian Cattleman’s Association (CCA) online forum on June 12, 2020. He predicted that we could lose 15 per cent of our farming families over the next year due to financial pressure during the pandemic. “It will be huge to lose so many farms at once. COVID-19 allowed us to understand how important supply chain support is.”
The traditional approach in agriculture is to grow something, then sell it, Charlebois said. He advocates switching to a true demand chain management approach that starts with consumers or is dictated by demand. “We need to invest in processing; it has to be the centerpiece of ag strategy. If we don’t get this right, farmers will suffer.”
CCA president Bob Lowe couldn’t agree more. In his introductory remarks to this forum, he said, “The meat industry is designed for efficiency. When 80 per cent of the country’s processing plants were affected by COVID-19 outbreaks, everything was radically disrupted. We need to create more resiliency in the system.”
This session was one of two online forums called Feeding the Future that CCA held in spring 2020 to address this issue and others. The first forum on May 29, 2020, focused on the impact of COVID-19 on young Canadian ranchers who, fittingly, were the presenters.
New challenges for ranching families
Kendra and Brian Donnelly run a farm and ranch operation near Acme, Alta., with 75,000 head of cattle. More recently, they partnered with Kendra’s parents to operate Korova and Rimrock Feeders Ltd.
“Ranching is always risky, and COVID-19 is a new element,” said Kendra. Canada may lose an entire generation of ranchers due to the losses we may face trying to sell our cattle. I’m not sure there will be a future on the farm for our son Owen. Canadians rely on family farms to provide food and we like to know that we are providing the high-quality products on our grocery shelves … but the current situation is financially devastating; it may not be worth taking that risk any longer. We can’t afford losing an entire industry to this pandemic.”
Kendra added that Canadian agriculture needs to continue to innovate and become a global leader. “We have the resources to do this: land, water, and energy. Now we just need to make food security a priority for our country. This will become Canada’s priority as we look to a future after COVID-19.”
Smaller farms often have an easier time adapting to change. Maryjo and Rob Tait own Celtic Ridge Farms, 300 acres west of London, Ont. Their children Alexander and Emily are the fifth generation on the farm. The Taits run 100 head of cattle and also work off-farm. Pre-pandemic, they sold 80 per cent of their beef to restaurants and the rest at farmers’ markets and on-site. With COVID-19 lockdowns, they lost their largest market.
“We weren’t sure how we would make our April mortgage payment,” said Maryjo during the CCA forum. “We had tried online marketing before without much success, but when the pandemic hit, we decided to try it again. We soon had 100 per cent of our beef going directly to consumers, replacing our lost income.”
Though some customers come directly to the farm (gate to plate), others place orders for delivery. The couple take turns driving all over South Western Ontario on delivery day. While sales are now secure, there is still a struggle to get their beef processed. They take it to a small, family-owned abattoir in the region where everything from the process to the labelling undergoes scrutiny. “But when COVID-19 hit, they became maxed out,” said Rob, “and there were delays, which resulted in some financial loss.”
A few months in, things were starting to stabilize. “Farmers are resilient,” said Maryjo. “There are so many things we can’t control – weather, prices, markets, a pandemic – but we can learn to adapt. We are helping some of our neighbours do the same. We are thankful that Canadians recognize the strength in our local producers and Canadian beef farmers. People are now looking for the best food, not the most economical. They want to support local. We hope that trend will continue.”
Cattle ranchers key to conservation
Geoff Larkin and his family have been farming for eight generations in Nova Scotia. He and his parents run a cow-calf operation called Lorcain Farms. Calves are born in spring, put out to pasture in summer and brought to market in fall. When Geoff presented on May 29, he wasn’t sure what impact the pandemic would have. Though he uses management tools to try and predict prices and markets, there are too many variables that make it difficult to plan more than a month ahead.
Geoff is a proponent of price insurance that sets the prices for the fall markets six months in advance. “For young farmers like myself, equity is a big problem. When we go to borrow money, we don’t have a lot to borrow against. This spring we had a little extra grass and I would have loved to buy more calves, but without the price guarantee that insurance can provide, I couldn’t do it. We’re the next generation. I fear what might happen with COVID-19. We can’t take the hits, the fluctuations; we have a high debt load.” And Greg adds, “If more ranchers pull out of the business, it would be a major blow to the country in terms of food sustainability.”
However, not only could we lose the steaks, hamburgers, and other beef products most Canadians enjoy but also the benefits derived from the grasslands where many cattle graze. Kevin Keneycke, Regional Vice-President, Manitoba for Nature Conservancy, was a presenter at CCA’s June 12 online forum. “Grasslands are important: they filter our water, help prevent flooding and drought, store and sequester carbon, and for thousands of years have provided sustenance to humans. Supporting the beef industry is critical for all of us.”
Karla Guyn, CEO of Ducks Unlimited Canada couldn’t agree more. Speaking at the same online session, she cited the devastating impact of BSE on the cattle industry in 2003. BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a disease that decimated the industry, both with loss of cattle and worldwide bans against Canadian beef. The result? The loss of 27,000 ranching operations and five million acres of grassland.
“Some of Canada’s most important habitats are managed and preserved by farmers and ranchers,” Karla explained. The debilitating effects of COVID-19 may change that. The actions impacting cattle, grasslands, wetlands and wildlife go hand in hand. Without a successful beef industry, conservation in Canada won’t continue at the rate and scale it so desperately needs. History has shown that a potential fallout in the beef industry is simply not a risk we can afford to take.”
Ranchers innovate, diversify and remain optimistic
Yet in spite of the challenges COVID-19 has brought to the beef industry, it is unlikely to destroy it. Farmers like the Donnellys have expanded their cattle business to include a feedlot, the Taits go online and on the road to sell their beef, and Geoff Larkin uses management tools and advocacy to help his bottom line. While some Canadian ranchers might be discouraged and leave the business, others will take their place, though not always as traditional farmers. The Tarnavas are a good example.
When Rea Tarnava of Calgary lost her mother, she wanted to turn her grief into a living legacy. In May 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, she sold her mother’s house and purchased 300 acres of land near Lundbreck, Alta. The land is beautiful: a creek runs through the property, there are 14 natural springs and a 6,000-foot mountain. When Rea and her husband hiked to the top, they began to plan and dream. Rea’s husband was raised on a cattle ranch and has an agriculture degree; Rea has a PhD in applied physics as it relates to health and runs her own biofield medicine business. They plan on starting a business that combines agriculture and the healing arts.
“We want to have multiple revenue streams,” said Rea. “That’s the only way ranching can be successful. We know we want to have livestock but haven’t decided what type of animal yet.” They will start by leasing land to cow-calf ranchers, and dedicating five acres to income generation: building a greenhouse to grow specialty health foods like medicinal mushrooms, opening an eco-camp and, later, a healing retreat.
“To be sustainable, we have to diversify,” Rea affirms. “But our intention is to develop a business that will be less about profit and more about helping people.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative comprising 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.