The pandemic brought profound, and lasting, changes to our farms

Alyson Katerenchuk.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Alyson Katerenchuk, 20, is the senior winner in this year’s Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture competition. She grew up on a grain operation in Smoky Lake County and is currently obtaining her B.Sc. in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta. Here is her slightly abridged presentation on how the pandemic changed Canadian agriculture.

Almost a year and a half ago, the world as we knew it suddenly came to a halt. COVID-19 drastically altered how we came to know our daily lives.

But how has it changed the agricultural discipline specifically? I want to talk about two key reasons for the shifts we have seen in agriculture today.

Just as vaccines have defined who the global powers are, and are greatly shaping policies and trade networks, food commodities have also played a defining role in relation to global power projection due to rising food scarcity. I believe the global pandemic has shaped agriculture because of these networks within technology and international relations.

In March 2020, people were sent home from work, schools went on an ambiguous ‘break,’ activities stopped. It seemed life itself had taken a pause. When the pandemic first hit, the lack of connection between communities and families was felt abruptly in our private and public lives. Productivity slowed; face-to-face contact was now via video calls. Life had experienced a massive shift.

Now I want you all to reflect. Had life stopped in agriculture? Had it kept on going? Aside from the outbreaks in meat-processing plants or dairy farms, agriculture workers are already ‘naturally socially distancing.’ Therefore, production continued on, with our shared responsibility to meet the food demand from across the globe.

This pandemic did not greatly affect the daily lives of agricultural workers across Canada. However, it did lead to a large technology shift, placing considerable demand for high-speed internet, more cloud storage, data processors and much more data infrastructure.

One of the central issues related to advancing technologies is how we can now disseminate these best practices through a network of people across the globe and across generations. The online environment has also now enabled smaller farm operations to gain a greater understanding and acceptance of these technologies.

For example, this summer my family implemented a new drone device in our operation through a government-funded pilot project. Living in an isolated area, we were assisted in troubleshooting issues with the technology through the use of Zoom with the drone suppliers, right from our family farm.

New methods of gathering imagery, using technology such as CubeSats, has allowed us farmers to gather data from space in a more feasible and efficient method than having individual farmers use, even drones, to gather hyperspectral images.

These advancements in data collection are also primarily due to the rapid growth in satellite technology to feed a global demand for remote communication. We are benefiting from companies like Starlink, working to deliver high-speed, low latency broadband internet in response to the increasing need for immediate connections worldwide.

We must continue to ride this changing system, and not fear embracing it.

We have seen an overwhelming change in the role and responsibilities many farmers have in their operations. Farmers are becoming more overseers of the land, guided in their actions by, ‘the data gatherers’ from the skies. I believe we must embrace these voices for the changes seen in these technologies, which have enabled us to generate stronger connections, farmer to farmer, and farmer to field, and farmer to others in this industry.

While this research and development is the ‘engine of innovation’ across industries, to better understand how agriculture is changing or needs to change within a global pandemic, it is paramount to look also at international relations.

There have been surging prices in agricultural commodities that reflect the strong global food demand, weather uncertainties, macroeconomic conditions, and supply distributions. However, food production has mostly remained the same.

We have seen conflicts in trade recently in China and India related to their food scarcity and stockpiling as a result of protectionism driven by pandemic-related fears. As China is the world’s largest agricultural importer, it is crucial to Canada’s economic future. Many countries are pushing for food certainty individually, however, we have found no easy solution. Instead, I believe we must find a global and collective solution.

There has been a drastic increase in the number of people facing acute food insecurity since COVID-19 arrived. It is estimated that there are 272 million people who are already at or are at risk of becoming acutely food insecure. While China contains only nine per cent of the arable land with 20 per cent of the population, Canada has roughly 4.3 per cent of the arable land, but with only 0.5 per cent of the world population. So we are under pressure to produce higher quantities and more varieties of food, and food scarcity is having a direct effect on the push for innovation and policies within agriculture in Canada.

The pandemic has shown us that the world’s food supply is greatly interconnected; and as a result, there is a responsibility of us farmers to not only meet the rising food demand in Canada, but also globally.

This is a bit of an aside from my points today, but I believe, it is especially important. The prevalence of mental illness and poor health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide, is exponentially increasing, particularly in the isolated communities of Alberta. I want to raise the importance of seeking help, checking in on family, on neighbours, and having those conversations that many of us struggle having. We need to help one another in these troublesome times.

While this global pandemic has turned things upside down, it’s also brought families closer together, and changed people’s understandings of the potential that agriculture has for the future of Canada.

It has also enabled students like me to attend university from our farm. Looking back on these past two years, we must remember the positive memories such as the times spent as a family eating a harvest supper, the more frequent phone calls with our distant relatives, and the time used to reconnect with old friends.

It has no doubt shaped who we are today, as individuals, and as farmers. However, our new way of living is, I believe, embedded within these novel technologies and the ever-changing international network of political powers.

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