$252M aid package 'not going to save everybody,' Manitoba farm group says after industry asks for billions

Manitoba agricultural producers say a more than $252-million aid package to help farmers and food processors navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is a good start, but far from what is needed to help prop up the industry.

Some industries need immediate help, says Keystone Agriculture president

Manitoba farmers say much more is needed to help them weather the COVID-19 pandemic and come out on the other side. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Manitoba agricultural producers say a more than $252-million aid package to help farmers and food processors navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is a good start, but far from what is needed to help prop up the industry. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau billed the new package as an "initial announcement" on Tuesday morning, acknowledging more will need to be done.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture last week asked for a $2.6-billion emergency fund.

"When we look at a 10 per cent acknowledgement with today's announcement, I would suggest that that's not going to save everybody," said Bill Campbell, president of Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers, one of the province's largest farm advocacy groups.

"As was mentioned by the president of Canadian Federation of Agriculture this morning, it's like we have a burning building and the federal government has given us a bucket of water," he said.

"It is something, and I don't want to belittle what today's announcement is, but we need to address all forms of agriculture production."

Campbell said the mushroom, seafood and equine industries in particular were left out of the picture. 

Bill Campbell is the president of Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers. He also farms south of Brandon. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Included in Trudeau's announcement Tuesday was a new $77-million fund for food processors, including meat packers, to help businesses retrofit their factories and increase capacity.

The government is also expected to add $125 million to the AgriRecovery fund, a federal-provincial program aimed at helping farmers during disasters.

Campbell said propping up that program, which is funded 60 per cent by Ottawa and 40 per cent by the provinces, buys time, but he wants to see more negotiations to ensure it's properly funded and accessible to producers who need it most. 

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday morning that the province is still reviewing the aid package.

"If there is a need for provincial support to complement what the federal government is doing, it's something that we will give full consideration to," he said.

Cattle, hog farmers face backlog

The cattle industry had been pushing for some type of relief as it deals with a backlog of livestock that's been building up in parts of the county, said Campbell, who operates a livestock and oilseed farm south of Brandon, Man. 

"We do have some opportunity in the cattle industry to, when there's green grass … send them out to pasture and buy some time," he said.

"But eventually they will come to market, and we need to see improvements at that particular point in time."

However, the pork industry "is in immediate need of some form of ability to stay in business," Campbell said.

However, Boyd Penner, who farms near Blumenort, Man. — about 45 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg — said he's not seeing much help for producers like him. 

"The Canadian government, I don't think they like farmers, period," said Penner, who operates a mixed farm. All of his hog barns are currently empty.

"There's nothing in this package," he said. "They're helping packers, but they should focus on where the food comes from."

Boyd Penner operates a mixed farm southeast of Winnipeg. He says he would have liked to see more help for producers in Tuesday's announcement. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Raising hogs was a losing business even before COVID-19 hit, said Penner, adding that he couldn't compete with subsidies offered in the United States.

"There's just no money in it, especially now," he said.

He plans to double down down on his efforts to grow wheat and corn, but worries those markets, too, will be soft come harvest in the fall. 

"All we can do is live on hope."

Surplus potatoes

For other commodities, Trudeau pledged at least $50 million for a purchase program for surplus food. In Manitoba, the potato industry has faced massive surpluses as processing plants face plummeting demand for french fries and other potato products, with many restaurants fully or partially shut down due to the pandemic. 

"The government will buy large quantities of certain products at risk of going to waste — say, potatoes or poultry — and redistribute them to organizations addressing food insecurity," the prime minister said.

Pat Owen, a partner in River Trail Potato Co. near Carman, Man., about 75 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, still has millions of kilograms of potatoes in storage from last year because processors aren't taking them. 

"It's a good start," he said of the $50-million pledge, but it "is probably one-fifth of what we need."

Pat Owen, a partner in River Trail Potato Co. near Carman, Man., said he still has millions of kilograms of potatoes in storage, with no place to sell them right now. (Submitted by Pat Owen)

Owen told CBC News on Tuesday he's still unsure whether he'll be able to get rid of all of his remaining potatoes from last year's crop. He has already started planting for 2020.

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Campbell worries that some producers won't make it to 2021 without more robust help. 

"Some of these farmers … have to make decisions today and tomorrow about what we are going to be doing in business for 2020."

This year's crop cycle "may very well be the most important production cycle in agriculture that we have seen forever," Campbell said.

"It will determine who is left … and in the game for 2021. There are some sectors that are going to change dramatically."


Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback:

With files from Karen Pauls, Cameron MacIntosh, Catharine Tunney and Janyce McGregor


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