Thrust into the spotlight, the farm sector shines during pandemic

Food supply chain does something extraordinary in unprecedented crisis — keeps things running ‘mostly normally’

Never in our lifetimes has the ordinary been so extraordinary.

Take, for example, the simple act of delivering a load of grain. The whole business of receiving, grading, and getting the paperwork to the farmer or truck driver is hands-on work, usually done in close quarters.

So you not only have to be fastidious about the now well-known hygiene and social distancing protocols but also be prepared for the what-if — which means it’s mostly skeleton crews at Prairie elevators, with workers held in reserve in case someone on a team shows signs of COVID-19.

Still, it’s all working “mostly normally,” said Tom Steve, general manager of Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.

“We’re moving large volumes of grain right now, and that’s a credit to the people who are staffing those facilities,” Steve said March 30. “There’s a lot of grain to move, and the pipeline is working reasonably well.”

Bob Lowe.
photo: Supplied

‘Normal’ is an accolade these days, and Bob Lowe was full of praise for people across the cattle and beef sector who are making that happen.

Lowe, owner of Bear Trap Feeders near Nanton, assumed presidency of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in mid-March, just as the enormous threat of this ‘novel coronavirus’ was becoming apparent.

That’s also when bull sale season was starting to swing into high gear and the fact the sector was able to continue on a largely uninterrupted basis showed how “people are stepping up,” he said.

“We’re not in a bad position to weather this, as long as we can keep everything moving the way it has been,” added Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.

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“Producers understand that.”

The entire national food chain has been thrust into the national spotlight as millions of Canadians queue two metres apart outside grocery stores and wonder if they will find what’s on their shopping list when they’re let inside.

Panic buying and hoarding has left some shelves bare but the message coming from the agriculture and food sectors is, ‘Don’t worry, we have your back.’

This is happening in a myriad of ways and even a small sampling of those efforts show it is a diverse and wide-ranging effort.

  • Alberta Milk says its producers have upped production while slaughter plants have been increasing production of meat as both products are in high demand.
  • Seed and input companies are working to prevent any disruptions in their supply chains while farm equipment dealerships are making sure parts — and service technicians — will be available as needed.
  • New measures have been implemented so truckers bringing in parts, inputs, livestock medicines and other needed food-production goods can not only cross the border but don’t have to self-quarantine for two weeks so they can keep on working.
  • The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association has been addressing issues such as ensuring there are sufficient livestock medications and how vets can issue prescriptions using telemedicine instead of in-person visits to ranches.
  • Plant breeders, universities, and research organizations are prioritizing resources so key trials can continue and not be lost to interruptions.
  • Lenders are taking steps to ensure farmers have enough cash flow.

One of the first worries — aside from toilet paper — to surface at grocery stores was the availability of baking supplies. With so many stuck at home, Canadians were rediscovering the art of baking and many were dismayed to find every bag of flour gone from the shelves.

But there was no shortage, just overly anxious shoppers panic buying, said Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers Association.

Despite a hectic schedule, Harrison repeatedly thanked a reporter for contacting him — he not only wanted people to know there are ample supplies but to give a shout-out to the people who had made it so.

“We have a good news story so far,” said Harrison, thanking grain producers, elevators for ensuring there was good movement of grain to mills, and milling companies for quickly producing more consumer-size bags of flour.

But he also wanted to thank those who were just putting in their regular shift.

“Our member companies are experiencing excellent turnout from their workers,” said a grateful Harrison. “Milling operations at all locations operated anywhere by our member companies are so far, pretty much normal.”

But keeping things relatively normal is taking a lot of work.

To keep grain moving, grain companies quickly had to put new processes in place — some simple (such as requiring those delivering grain to stay in their trucks) and others less so.

“In some cases, that might mean where you would normally have two people working together on a job, now you have one working,” said Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association.

That serves two purposes, he said.

“One, it keeps the employees at safe distances from each other, and two, it allows workers to be kept in the wings in case somebody falls ill and they need to be replaced by another worker who’s trained and skilled at that particular function.”

Like other grain companies, Parrish and Heimbecker implemented a “locked-door policy” for its elevator offices. That not only means calling ahead before delivering grain or picking up inputs but ensuring grain cheques get mailed out daily.

“The biggest change is the lack of human contact,” said Steve. “That system is actually working relatively smoothly, except that there’s social distancing in place at the elevator locations.”

But even more unusual measures were also being put in place.

One example of that came March 25 when the provincial government quietly allocated $74,739,000 to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry via an order-in-council. It simply said it was for “income support and insurance for disaster and emergency assistance for the 2019 agriculture economic hardship disaster.” There was no press release and it took a couple of days for it to emerge that the money is going to Agriculture Financial Services Corporation. The agency’s budget is being upped by a whopping 25 per cent to cover crop insurance claims from last year and provide farmers with income support.

While the main focus is on keeping everything — and everyone — in operation today, tomorrow and next month, the unprecedented effort will pay dividends further down the road, said Lowe.

“Coming out of this pandemic — which we will — and if we do what we’re supposed to do, the recovery will be that much quicker,” he said.

And maybe it will even alter how Canadians view farmers and all the people who contribute in one way or another to the production of food.

“I think people will have a whole new appreciation for food,” he said. “If you’re in the business of producing food, that’s probably a good thing.”

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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