Comment: How well are farmers handling their pandemic fame?

Some efforts to reach out to consumers are proving controversial

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Farmers often lament that as each generation becomes further removed from the farm, the ability of urbanites to understand and appreciate what it takes to grow food has declined.

Even though agriculture is fundamental to the health, wealth and security of any nation, Canadian producers now make up less than two per cent of the population, so their voice is often relegated to the status of a special-interest group.

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The pandemic lockdown, however, has made food security top-of-mind for Canadians for the first time since the Second World War, and that’s provided farmers and the organizations that represent them with an unusual opportunity to engage with the non-farming public.

Everything they say and do is suddenly of greater interest.

Although farmers and commodity groups have long been engaged in philanthropic gestures such as donating food to local food banks and supporting international humanitarian agencies such as the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, during the COVID-19 crisis, it has become the subject of headlines.

There are also new initiatives such as the decision by Manitoba dairy farmers to collaborate with Bothwell Cheese to convert surplus milk into cheese products for local food banks.

Manitoba’s general farm policy group Keystone Agricultural Producers has lobbied as hard as any for better support programs for farmers, but it has also launched a “Growing Manitoba Together” campaign to thank workers in the food-processing business.

It all feeds into the all-for-one-and-one-for-all theme that’s pulsed through efforts to lighten the psychological load created by the pandemic hardships.

However, Grain Farmers of Ontario has taken a more strident approach that’s proving controversial, even within the farming community. It released a video called “Empty Shelves.” The ad is part of a larger campaign that frames farmers’ long-standing grievances with government support programs against the backdrop of making sure Canadians have enough to eat.

“The food supply chain is breaking. This isn’t happening someplace far away but right here, at home,” the narrator says as the video depicts a run-down barn and long lineups outside a grocery store.

“Even Donald Trump knows farmers need help…. Trudeau is standing by as farmers and Canada’s food supply collapse. When farmers and the farms are gone, where are we going to get our food from?” the narrator asks as an empty grocery cart rolls across the screen.

Some farmers support the messaging. They’re frustrated because Canadian governments aren’t matching the $19 billion Donald Trump is paying out to American farmers. Others have reacted with dismay, calling the video’s use of scare tactics and misleading imagery cringe worthy.

For example, lineups outside of grocery stores are due to social-distancing provisions that only allow a certain number of shoppers in at the same time, not because there is no food inside for purchase.

Most farmers were indeed disappointed by recent federal announcements to support the agriculture and food sectors. They are experiencing varying degrees of hurt and it is likely that some farms will be among the business casualties in the pandemic fallout. Seeing farmers in competing export countries receiving higher levels of compensation grates because it gives them unfair advantage.

The GFO wants governments to improve the programs already in place to “help farmers if their businesses are in a loss position because of this pandemic.”

“We are asking the government to fully fund the Risk Management Program, to restore the AgriStability program to 85 per cent with no reference margin limits and restore the AgriInvest program to five per cent.”

About all the average Canadian would understand about that explanation is that farmers already get a whole bunch of government support.

The GFO says a survey of members found the vast majority believe they will see their net income reduced, their sales have been affected, one-third are experiencing cash-flow issues and more than half fear they won’t be able to cover their costs of production due to COVID-19. No doubt that’s true, but many Canadians could justifiably respond with “join the club.”

The last thing that farmers want is to be perceived as tone-deaf to the widespread hurt this pandemic is causing.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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