In early spring of last year, as the news of the pandemic began to grow, so too did the fear of the unknown. As nationwide shutdowns began with businesses temporarily closing their doors, panic buying set in. Grocery store shelves containing perishables, meats, cleaning supplies, and more sat empty for weeks and even months while the Canadian food supply chain scrambled to catch up.
As new restrictions were adding up, border closures mandated, and consumer demand became increasingly more unpredictable, the Canadian agricultural industry's outlook was only slightly less than doom-and-gloom. Articles posted online provided the public with a less than promising forecast for the remainder of 2020.
But now that we’re seemingly coming out on the other side of this pandemic, we're taking a look back on the past year, thinking – "Hey, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
The Three Greatest Threats to Canadian Agriculture in 2020
The less-than-positive news: not every sector within the Canadian agricultural industry came through 2020 unscathed.
Labour shortages both on the farm and at processing plants turned into a big pain point for Canadian farmers. Both farms and food processing plants utilize foreign workers to build out their labour force and cover busy seasons. But what happens when they can't get into the country?
Faced with border closures, many migrant workers were unable to get into Canada. In the cases where they could reach Canada, the mandatory two-week isolation period provided another hoop to jump through that was too far out of reach for many. Migrant workers often stay in a shared living space provided by their employer but cannot complete the mandatory isolation period at these locations. Meaning they had to find a place to isolate themselves in a new country and finance that location and time on their own, all while not earning a wage. The financial stress was too much to bear and deterred many workers from making the trip.
Processing and packaging plants faced labour shortages beyond a lack of access to foreign workers. Any workers who showed symptoms of COVID-19 or came into contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19 had to isolate for up to two weeks. More workers than usual had to take advantage of sick leaves to follow these new health regulations. Parents also had to deal with school shutdowns and homeschooling. Families often had to make the difficult decision of one parent staying home to take care of the kids, meaning that many workers had to either quit or take long-term leaves until schools opened again.
Social Distancing Pains
Beyond labour shortages, the nationwide mandate to social distance caused additional pains for farmers and the like. Keeping a six-foot distance isn't always possible when sharing transportation or in shared living spaces, and equipment and work/break spaces are often shared as well (washrooms, tractors, tools, etc.). Shifts often had to be shorthanded and offset to avoid crowding workstations and locker rooms.
Manufacturing plants struggled greatly with adapting to social distancing regulations. In particular, Meat processing plants had trouble adjusting to the new rules and providing a safe and distanced workspace for their labourers. They require many people to work each shift, and those workers are most often in close quarters. Many plants had to keep shifts short-staffed and offset shift start and end times to provide an environment where social distancing was a bit easier. They also scheduled shifts as “pods” that always worked together to help with contact tracing if someone was to fall ill. In keeping shifts smaller to promote social distancing, meat processing plants produced significantly less output. A backlog of livestock sat on farms for months, leaving the farmer to cover the costs of feeding, housing, and caring for animals that should have already left for processing.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the work and the inability to always stick to six feet apart, meat processing plants ended up being the center of quite a few outbreaks of the virus over 2020. Resulting in the closures of a few prominent locations across Canada; ex. Cargill, Olymel, and Belmont Meats, causing even further issues for farmers trying to get their livestock to market. However, social distancing problems and outbreaks weren't the only reason a backlog of livestock and crops sat to spoil while waiting for processing.
Changes in Consumer Demand
Restaurant shutdowns, working from home, and quarantine threw the supply and demand forecast for 2020 out the window. Consumer demand changed wildly throughout the past year and continues to show new trends in a few different areas. At the beginning of the first quarantine, while panic buying left many grocery stores empty, restaurants were ordered to temporarily close their doors. Food processing plants had to pivot to change their portion size offerings. Restaurants were no longer purchasing commercial-sized bags of potatoes or flour, chicken nuggets and wings were no longer being ordered by the dozens, and consumers were looking to save money rather than spend on the quality (ie. more expensive) cuts of meat. So, they retooled plants to offer more family-friendly and individual-sized servings.
As the supply chain worked overtime to catch up, our government started placing new regulations on imports and exports to help keep Canadian foods inside our borders. While this was a required attempt at self-preservation for the country, other countries also did the same thing meaning that foods we regularly imported previously were temporarily unavailable to us.
Consumers began looking for new ways to entertain themselves and learn new skills as quarantine dragged on longer than expected. Cooking at home and learning to bake were popular tasks throughout 2020. It is no surprise that as consumers began to make their foods at home, eating healthier and more ethically sourced foods started to become a large driving factor in food purchasing. Consumers' interest in knowing from where ingredients were sourced and how workers and animals were treated grew. Many farmers opened vegetable stands and small roadside markets where they could sell directly to their communities. This provided the consumer with food purchasing options that allowed them to see better where their money was going and directly support their community. At the same time, farmers could sell goods that otherwise should have entered the incredibly disrupted food supply chain.
As we move forward into 2021, the food supply chain has had ample time to even out and things are looking up for all sectors. Restaurants are beginning to open back up, students are back at school, and workers that moved to remote workdays are starting to head back into the office again. Despite the challenges faced last year, farmers are still getting livestock and produce to market and most food processing plants are back up and operating, and moving forward with future plans.
So, maybe it wasn’t as bad as we expected?
On a Positive Note
Not all Canadian agriculture industry sectors were hit as hard by the pandemic as livestock farms and processing plants. Pulses, grains, and oilseeds are doing incredibly well; there is a high demand for Canadian crops right now. This already highly mechanized industry didn't have to face the complex challenges of labour shortages or social distancing pains. Instead, it will likely be a significant economic driver over the next year as Canada rebounds from the pandemic. Canada is the world's top producer and exporter of canola, lentils, and peas, while wheat is our single biggest export earner in Agriculture; we produce 30 million tons each year and export seven billion dollars worth. Over 50 countries alone rely on our canola and flaxseed exports.
In agriculture sectors where the outlook isn't as positive as crops, the Canadian government has stepped up to the plate, putting together funds for bursaries and grants in an attempt to stimulate growth and continue upward trends where needed.
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While the outlook for 2020 started quite negative at the beginning of the pandemic, the Canadian agricultural industry has proven its resilience once again. This tough industry has faced labour shortages, social distancing pains, and massive swings in consumer demand. Though our optimism waned last year, our agriculture and food supply chain has managed to even out again and gain traction within the international market. And in sectors that need the extra hand up, our government is stepping up to the plate by injecting funds and stimulating growth. Despite it all, it seems we're coming out the other end armed with new skills and a positive outlook as we work towards the next growing season.