The World Health Organization’s elevation of the new coronavirus COVID-19 to pandemic status on March 11 has sent farm organizations scrambling to assess the impact.
While no BC farmers are known to be infected with the virus, many who have returned to the country from abroad this month are in self-quarantine as a precaution.
Meanwhile, a host of measures have been rolled out in response to limit the impacts of the virus. BC has limited public events to no more than 50 people, all of whom must be at least one metre from each other. The restrictions have also prompted a growing number of farm organizations to postpone or cancel meetings and auctions scheduled as late as the end of May. (Check the Country Life in BC calendar for the latest updates.)
Business closures and disruptions to supply chains are also having an impact. Suppliers to the sector are reporting that inventory is either delayed or not available.
An immediate concern for many farmers is access to labour. With just a third of the more than 8,000 foreign workers who travel to the province having arrived, travel restrictions have farm organizations scrambling to secure access.
Working with the Canadian Horticulture Council and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the BC Agriculture Council is submitting a proposal today that asks Ottawa to treat seasonal and temporary foreign workers like permanent residents.
“How do we as an industry apply the same principals that apply to Canadian residents returning from Mexico to the Mexican workers that come to Canada?” says Reg Ens, describing the proposal. “This is an issue that has to be resolved in days, not weeks.”
Ens said officials in Ottawa have been sympathetic, and he’s optimistic.
“They indicate that the food supply is a critical issue for Canada, and they’re receptive to hearing what we have to say,” he says.
Discussions are also ongoing between the federal and territorial ministers of agriculture regarding the pandemic, and ways to support farmers impacted by the pandemic.
A request for an interview with BC agriculture minister Lana Popham drew a statement from her staff regarding the seriousness with which she’s taking farmers’ concerns.
“I’m hearing concerns about everything from revenue and market access to supply chains and labour,” she said. “I am working closely with our federal partners to review how existing and additional programs that help producers who experience income losses may be used or developed to help producers who experience revenue declines this year.”
Ens said the focus needs to be on immediate measures, not income stabilization.
“We’re trying to keep the wheels on the bus, not put the patch on the tire,” he said.
Among the measures industry believes would help are access to working capital, tax deferral programs and measures to address the red tape that makes hard times harder to navigate.
“Those are the kinds of things we’re thinking of right now rather than AgriStability,” he says.
Originally identified in Wuhan, China in November 2019, COVID-19 has spread to 164 countries and territories. Close to 200,000 people have become infected, with more than 8,400 deaths.