Like the BSE crisis of 17 years ago, COVID-19 came without warning and pulled the ground out from underneath cattle producers almost overnight.
Those who lived through those days say lessons learned from that time apply today, but there are also some important distinctions between that crisis and the pandemic.
Arno Doerksen was chair of Alberta Beef Producers when a single case of BSE was confirmed in Alberta on May 20, 2003 and the border immediately slammed shut.
“There was nowhere to go with half of our beef production,” said Doerksen, whose family operation near Gem now includes a cow-calf operation, purebred herd and feedlot.
It would take nearly four months before the border opened a bit (for beef from cattle under the age of 30 months).
“By that time, there were a lot of cattle piled up that had no place to be processed,” said Doerksen.
Then, as now, the number of market-ready cattle stuck on feedlots quickly reached six figures and so a set-aside program was established to help cover the cost of feeding those animals. That program is the model for the one recently announced by government.
There are also sharp differences — a big one in 2003 was a concern that consumers here would be afraid to eat beef. But the biggest difference is, of course, that COVID-19 is affecting everyone
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a nurse or a furniture salesman, everybody is in the same boat,” said Ricki Fleming who ranches with husband Justin Pittman and her parents, Cecilie and Duncan, near Granum. “We all have to work through it together and push through.”
But as with BSE, the uncertainty weighs heavily.
“Not knowing how the next six months are going to look is definitely a little bit unnerving,” said Tessa Verbeek of Hillview Farms near Morinville, a mixed farm she operates with husband Colin Verbeek and his parents, Raymond and Corine.
“Both the young producers and the more experienced have a lot of money invested in their enterprises.”
Both Fleming and Verbeek said they haven’t suffered a big financial hit so far. But most young producers can’t afford one, either.
“When you have a young family and you don’t have the equity and the assets that more seasoned producers have, you have a lot of money invested and not a whole lot to show for it yet,” said Verbeek, who with her husband started their own ranch, Crossing Creek Cattle, five years ago. “If everything goes south, you don’t have those assets necessarily to keep you afloat. That’s a bit unnerving for young producers. Right now, it’s just very uncertain.”
Although the set-aside program has been criticized by cattle leaders as being grossly inadequate, the pandemic is seeing government pump unprecedented amounts of money into the economy. That includes agriculture through measures such as upping the amount under the Advanced Payment Program and increasing Farm Credit Canada’s lending capacity by $5 billion.
“During BSE, it was hard,” recalled Cecilie Fleming. “You had to go to your creditors and you had to say, ‘Hey, I can’t make this payment. What can I do?’”
Talking to your creditors is still critical, but this crisis is different because the credit taps are wide open, she emphasized.
“I caution to be careful on loans and deferrals because they have to be paid back,” she said. “Use the tools prudently. It’s not a windfall.”
Her daughter echoes that view and said producers — regardless of age — will have to be clear eyed when it comes to their current situation and their future prospects.
“Regardless of whether it was BSE or this type of situation, if things are tight, they’re tight, so you have to make hard decisions,” she said, adding that applies to both younger and older producers. “People who are of retirement age might also pull in the tent pegs a little earlier, take what they can and move on.”
But Cecilie Fleming fears there will be another exodus of young farmers.
“We lost so many vibrant people in BSE — they went to the oilpatch, they went to the city and they haven’t come back,” she said. “We can’t do that again.
“We need to be there to support them. We need to advocate on their behalf because they’re busy with their nose to the grindstone.”
Doerksen had three boys in high school during the BSE crisis and recalls sitting them down to talk about what the future might hold for them.
“We discussed the impact for them, and what was the future of the industry when all of a sudden things were worth nothing,” he said.
It was a frank discussion but also a chance to look beyond the present, said Doerksen, adding all three sons are involved in agriculture today.
“It was a very conscious effort on the part of people to maintain hope and the sight of a future,” he said.
Communication is a central theme in the advice offered by Cecilie Fleming. In addition to talking to their creditors, producers need to talk to both government and consumers about the impact of the pandemic on their farms and ranches.
“There’s nothing better than being open and transparent,” she said.
That also means being open about how you’re doing, said Fleming, adding one of the biggest changes since the BSE days has been a greatly increased awareness of mental health challenges on the farm.
“I think there has been growth on mental health (awareness),” said Fleming. “Instead of turning to self-medicating, trying to kill the pain, we’re talking about the pain. And it’s real.”
Initially, Verbeek said she felt fortunate because the family’s annual bull sale was held before the pandemic was officially declared.
“At first, things were looking good,” she said. “The outlook wasn’t looking too terrible as far as market prices go until the closing of the packing plants temporarily and shifts being cut.
“That had a very rapid effect. I’m not sure anybody was prepared for or expecting that hit.”
While the day-to-day business — feeding cows and seeding crops — hasn’t changed, the dark clouds on the horizon are always there.
“It’s a little bit unnerving thinking about what things are going to be like coming up here,” said Verbeek. “I certainly sympathize with those (feedlot) producers. That has not directly affected us yet, but I know the trickle-down effect is coming. We’re bracing ourselves for that.”
In addition to starting their own commercial cattle herd, the Verbeeks, both graduates of the Cattlemen’s Young Leaders program, have added some revenue streams by selling 4-H prospect steers and heifers each fall, and running cattle clipping, fitting and showmanship clinics for 4-H clubs. The latter are on hold for now and while the couple is thinking of doing direct selling of beef, the near-term strategy is to carry on, keep spending down, and be hopeful.
“I’m feeling for everybody who is in the same boat,” she said. “We’re not alone by any means. There are a lot of producers who will be facing some challenges.”
Doerksen remembers well the challenges of two decades ago.
There was the pen of cattle ready to be shipped for slaughter when BSE hit that he had to hold on to until the end of summer. And because BSE was linked to a horrible disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob, there were big-time fears that consumers would shun beef.
But 2003 turned out to be a good year for grass and he had no problems feeding those cattle. And per capita beef consumption in Canada went up that year.
“To the credit of Albertan and Canadian consumers, they stayed with us,” he said. “They rallied around beef producers.”
Standing by one another is exactly what Canadians need to do for each other in these times, Doerksen added.
“This has far-reaching impacts for our whole economy,” he said. “This has staggering implications.”
It is a time to think of others, agreed Verbeek.
“The future is really uncertain for everybody whether you’re in the beef industry or otherwise,” she said.
Fleming, like Doerksen, believes farmers are resilient. Some won’t be able to ride out a severe downturn, she said, but many young producers (herself included) have off-farm income or will find a way to get through these times.
“Getting into agriculture is an uphill battle. If you’re going into it, you’re going all in,” she said.
And as devastating as the pandemic has been, it has forced a lot of people to reflect on what is really important.
“Regardless of whether you are rural or urban, I think it’s really caused people to get back to their roots and what’s important — family, friends, neighbours and helping each other.”