Agriculture learned its COVID lessons — and quickly

Now is the time to start positioning the sector for the coming recovery

The agriculture industry was hit hard by the pandemic.

Early on, it became apparent that the sector needed to make changes in order to address the situation. But a year later, by many accounts, the Canadian agriculture sector has adapted effectively — spectacularly, even.

This past winter at the Farm Forum conference, Marty Seymour from FCC spoke to a (fittingly) virtual audience about the effects COVID-19 had on the industry, how the sector adapted and how some of those changes may now be baked in.

Seymour broke down the major effects on the industry into three parts: labour market shifts; the industry coming together; and changing consumer habits.

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He began his discussion talking about labour and the crunch that came as a result of temporary foreign workers being unable to come to Canada.

The domestic labour market – specifically in the meat-packing and -processing sectors – also felt the pinch.

“The first plants to go down were in Quebec,” said Seymour. “We realized how integrated the hog industry was because now we had a backup of a hundred thousand hogs in a couple of weeks.”

In these cases, plants had to shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks. But other labour issues also began to emerge. Uncertainty about the virus early in the pandemic meant that many people were afraid to come to work. As schools began to close, childcare was unavailable to many working parents.

There were also additional labour costs associated with COVID-19 precautions at the processing plants.

“Personal protective equipment (PPE) was a huge expense to their bottom line,” said Seymour.

The way the industry adapted to these labour market challenges tied into the next part of Seymour’s discussion – how industry came together.

“A lot of times it takes a crisis to pull people together,” said Seymour.

In the case of PPEs the Canadian Federation of Agriculture partnered up with the cattle industry and the pork industry and went to Ottawa and came away with funds to offset the growing costs associated with PPEs. They also used the same platform to lobby for an extension of the Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA) to include farmers (it had initially been designated for small businesses, but farms were not included).

Similarly, farmers were able to get support to pay temporary foreign workers while they isolated for two weeks.

Seymour spent the rest of his time talking about changing consumer habits associated with COVID-19. He began with what he termed the “urban response” and how that affected the consumption of agricultural products. That response began with the complete shutdown of the restaurant industry.

“We weren’t getting a bacon cheeseburger anymore — no more french fries or the chicken wings,” said Seymour.

“All those groups were suddenly left with all this product and no home for it because we shifted everything to grocery,” he said.

And even how people shopped for groceries began to change. Initially, panicked shoppers emptied the shelves, leaving fewer choices. Fewer choices nudged shoppers towards alternatives they hadn’t considered before including a growing tolerance for “ugly” fruits or vegetables.

And of course, as the pandemic raged on, growing familiarity with online purchasing translated into a willingness to shop online for perishable foods, which hadn’t been a significant part of online shopping previously.

From a rural standpoint, Seymour said the biggest changes for farmers came in how they addressed farm inputs and how they dealt with equipment and supplies.

“A lot of the stuff we had to do in town was now by appointment only, on the farm input side,” he said. “If I looked at repairs we would call in, order the part, and it would be waiting outside the door for us. I think those changes that the farm community adopted went really well.”

So, which of these shifts are permanent and which will go back to the way they were? One area that Seymour thinks is here to stay is the motivation to buy local.

“That’s a habit that I think will stick — this ambition to support our neighbours and our friends,” he said.

Seymour also thinks that face-to-face activities — such as trade shows and conferences will re-emerge in the post-COVID landscape.

“I fundamentally believe that these things are coming back and there’s pent-up demand for us to gather as an industry,” he said.

However, one shift that Seymour says will have the most enduring impact is the public’s perception of the agricultural industry.

“We now have agriculture and food on the top of mind of legislators and consumers,” said Seymour. “This is our time to demonstrate that agriculture is an important part of the country’s formula for economic recovery.”

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