/Conservative MPs press Ag Minister on support for hurting agriculture producers

Conservative MPs press Ag Minister on support for hurting agriculture producers

Conservative MPs on the House industry committee pressed Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau to introduce additional measures to support Canada’s hog, cattle and poultry producers, who have been financially hurting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Minister Bibeau said agriculture producers have access to the general Canada Emergency Business Account, which offers up to $40,000 in interest-free loans; $5 billion in loans through Farm Credit Canada; an array of business risk management (BRM) programs like AgriInvest or AgriStability; and other “very beneficial loans” that are available for most sectors through commercial banks. However, Conservative MP John Barlow said most producers do not qualify for any of these programs, or the amounts are “woefully inadequate.”

“What programs, if anything, are you going to be announcing in the near future to address this critical situation within the hog, cattle and poultry industry?” Barlow asked.

For example, Barlow said CEBA loans of $40,00 aren’t enough for producers, noting that one pork producer in his riding puts 16 hogs through his farm each month with a feed bill of almost $300,000 per month.

“He’s already lost more than $200,000 since [COVID-19] started,” Barlow explained.

In recent weeks, meat-packing plants in Alberta and Ontario responsible for a substantial portion of Canada’s beef have paused operations or reduced lines as they try to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. The delay in processing has created unmanageable backlogs, with farmers being forced to euthanize thousands of pigs they can’t afford to keep feeding.

Bibeau said she recognizes the situation for producers is critical and business risk management programs still exist, such as AgriInvest or AgriStability, which are jointly managed by federal, provincial and territorial governments. As well, she said producers can ask for advanced payments, though Barlow noted that the vast majority of agriculture producers don’t subscribe to these programs.

Earl Dreeshen, a Conservative member on the committee, also pressed Bibeau for details on the new federal aid package for  producers, referring to a report from CBC News in which spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada said the federal government is developing a new aid package for the agriculture sector. Dreeshen said support must be offered within two weeks, noting that planting season has already arrived for farmers — many of whom are without migrant workers to fill their labour needs.

“Farmers need some assurance that they can grow and plant their crops this spring or send their livestock to market and that the COVID-type stressors have been recognized and are being compensated for,” he said. “They can’t wait for things to roll out at normal government speed.”

Bibeau said she’s working to bring additional measures to support the various sectors, but it’s too soon for her to be making any announcements. She said there are many options on the table, as well as a need to coordinate with provinces and territories.

While Bibeau said the government’s efforts to bring as many temporary foreign workers to Canada as possible is moving in the right direction, the government has created a portal for Canadians to find jobs in the agricultural sector, as well as putting in place additional funds for provinces to incentivize people to work in essential services like agriculture.

“I want to tell farmers that yes, we have their backs, we’ll be there,” she said, speaking in French.

Bibeau said farmers should focus on accessing BRM programs, though acknowledged that while they might not be perfect, the department is working with the provinces to improve them.

But Dreeshen noted the federal government would still be on the hook for more funds, noting that the AgriRecovery program is a shared burden.

“When it comes down to the decision of who is ending up paying for this, the federal government has a great commitment that is going to be required because it’s a shared between the provinces and the federal government,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Dreeshen questioned department representatives on whether the Health of Animals Act, which can be used to compensate farmers depopulation due to animal disease, could be used in the circumstance of COVID-19 to compensate farmers who are forced to euthanize their animals. He argued that BRM programs have not been effective for hog, cattle and poultry producers.

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Siddika Mithani, president of Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said regulations in the act focus on disease only, whereas COVID-19 has raised the issue of humane slaughter.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s deputy minister Chris Forbes said the department is looking at programs like AgriRecovery, which is to be used for extraordinary costs resulting from depopulation or extended feeding of animals, with provincial colleagues.

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