Business & Policy
Effects of COVID-19 on Canadian agriculture
By Top Crop Manager
The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, have been all over the news recently. Health recommendations and government policy have been changing on an almost daily basis, but the growing impact the disease is having globally merits serious attention. All sectors of society and business – including agriculture – are starting to see the negative effects of the pandemic beyond the illness itself. While these issues may seem minimal compared to the problems already facing farmers thanks to the 2019 season, the ripple effects are already surfacing.
Shipments of field crops, already impacted by rail blockades in the past month, are now stuck in storage at ports across the country. Vancouver is particularly backed up, as shipping containers carrying Chinese goods would typically be used to transport Canadian agricultural products back across the Pacific Ocean to Asia. But, a combination of decreased demand and COVID-19 concerns have reduced intercontinental trade, meaning that fewer ships are coming in to Vancouver, and the supply is greater than the available space for Canadian shipments on return shipping trips.
The closure of Canada’s border to non-residents earlier this week has left many Canadian farmers wondering what the status of the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (SAWP) will be – whether they can rely on having seasonal workers on their farms, and when. An announcement made on March 18th that SAWP and temporary foreign workers (TFWs) would be exempt from the border closure (after a 14-day quarantine period) was premature. The exemption only applies to TFWs and international students coming from the United States.
Events (agricultural and otherwise) are being cancelled or postponed throughout Canada into April and May, so be sure to check event websites or the organizer’s social media accounts before committing to travel plans. When in doubt, contact the organizers to confirm that the event is still on.
While the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 belongs to a family of ribonucleic acid viruses in which some strains can be transmitted between humans and animals (zoonotic), transmission of COVID-19 is predominantly between humans. There is no conclusive evidence at this time that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted between humans and animals.
As such, for livestock farmers and those working with animal byproducts, basic disease prevention measures should suffice:
- wash hands thoroughly before and after coming into contact with animals and animal byproducts;
- avoid coming in contact with sick animals (when possible) or spoiled byproducts;
- isolate sick animals from healthy animals; and
- avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth whenever possible.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has developed recommendations for handling on-farm business, including on-farm deliveries, and developing a continuation-of-business (COB) plan.
Piled higher and deeper
And of course, this is all on top of the issues carrying over from the “harvest from hell” and other difficulties encountered during the 2019 growing season. Grain production and quality issues at harvest have resulted in seed being in short supply, particularly for corn and newer, herbicide-resistant varieties of soybean.
Wet conditions kept many growers from fully harvesting crops, seeding cover crops or applying fertilizers and manure to their fields before winter, which has increased the pressure to get in the fields early and prepare them for planting. However, early seeding following a mild winter carries the risk of snap frosts nullifying those efforts.
Staying healthy, body and mind
Canadian growers are coming off a one-two punch of difficult years, which would test anyone’s resiliency. The agriculture population is smaller than it’s ever been, and the industry has been dealing with a labor shortage even without the loss of seasonal workers. With these additional setbacks and concerns of how to manage the farm if any physical illness, COVID-19 or otherwise, were to occur, staying healthy – body and mind – is paramount.
Mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, have a stronger effect when a person is already under stress – such as the stress created by pinch-points like those experienced by Canadian agriculture as a whole in the past year. While the recommendation to self-isolate is the status quo for many farmers, isolation can be another pinch-point for mental illness.
For anyone feeling overwhelmed, take the time to look after yourself before the 2020 season begins in earnest. Handling mental health issues before they become crises will keep you on track and feeling ready to face any other challenges that arise in 2020. Most provincial government websites have information on mental health resources, as do organizations like Do More Ag: www.domore.ag/resources. For American farmers, the Rural Health Information Hub has information on a variety of resources available.
Whatever is happening in the world at large, agriculture remains a steady presence, continuing to do the hard work day in, day out. Keep informed, stay safe, and wash your hands – this too shall pass.