Local farmers worried about COVID-19 uncertainty, determined to forge ahead
Farmers preparing for spring are facing tough questions, amid border closures and economic upheaval
After two consecutive years of catastrophic flooding, New Brunswick farmers now have to contend with COVID-19, an unprecedented epidemic.
"Mother Nature may or may not be kind to us and trade deals may or may not be kind to us, and this is just a whole new level of uncertainty," said Lisa Ashworth, president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, an organization that advocates for local farmers.
Farmers across the country are grappling with how to sustain their business when other industries have laid off workers, how to bring in foreign workers when borders have closed and how to sell their produce.
The economics of making a living as a farmer are uncertain right now, and the long term implications of that are weighing on the minds of New Brunswick farmers, Ashworth said.
"We've had drought, we've had flooding. We're just crossing our fingers [because] we're at that stage of life in New Brunswick again. So, many producers are already financially very uncertain about what they need to be doing to survive."
Ashworth would like to see the province declare the entire food supply chain an essential service because farmers rely on other infrastructures, like mills, to do their job effectively.
"Dairy, poultry, many beef operations rely on dry shavings as bedding for their animals, and so if we can't get shavings then we can't have adequate animal care standards," Ashworth said.
"If all of those steps aren't deemed to be an essential service then nobody can do their job."
Uncertainty over foreign workers
Christian Michaud, a vegetable farmer in Bouctouche, was expecting a typical uneventful season -- until COVID-19 showed up.
"It's taken everybody by surprise," Michaud said.
Eight foreign workers are set to arrive on Michaud's farm in July, but the 44-year-old farmer said it remains to be seen how that will pan out.
"There's still a lot of unknowns."
The federal government is exempting temporary foreign workers from some COVID-19 travel restrictions. Foreign workers only make up about three per cent of New Brunswick's agricultural sector, but play a crucial role to the farmers who need the extra help.
It's not yet clear who will foot additional expenses to bring foreign workers to Canada. Farmers may have to charter a flight in order to bring over foreign workers, a costly endeavour for independent farmers.
Tim Livingstone, co-owner of Strawberry Hill Farm in Woodstock, grows berries and vegetables and farms livestock. Like Michaud, he relies on foreign workers.
In a normal year, Livingstone's four foreign workers would arrive from Mexico near the end of April to help with fieldwork.
If he isn't able to bring them in, he'll have to hire a new team of field workers.
"We'll do what we have to, but it will take a lot more management on my part because all these people won't have any training," Livingstone said.
Livingstone and Michaud also worry about their workers having to quarantine for two weeks, eating into the time for planting.
Most farmers in New Brunswick submitted paperwork for bringing in foreign workers long before COVID-19 arrived in the region and was declared a pandemic.
Because the paperwork states when the foreign workers are to arrive in Canada, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to bring the workers in earlier so they could self-quarantine before the season begins.
Ashworth, Livingstone and Michaud would like foreign workers to self-isolate on the farm while still working.
"If you drive through New Brunswick some people who in agriculture work in pretty major isolation every day [anyway]," Ashworth said.
Fear over cost, selling produce
Michaud is wondering if he'll be able to count on selling produce at the farmer's market during peak season or if he should invest selling online and offering home delivery.
"Will that be open again when we're ready to be selling in the peak of the season or will it still be closed?" Michaud asked.
"Well we have to find different distribution systems?"
Livingstone is worried about organic grain prices, which he needs to feed his livestock. He's already preordered as much grain as he could.
"I'm getting everything — all the grain I'm going to need until my crops start coming off the fields in August to try to hedge against what the prices may do," he said.
Despite the pandemic and the potential for another treacherous flood season, Ashworth, Michaud and Livingstone remain optimistic.
"One way or another, we'll get through it," Livingstone said.