Agriculture might not be top of mind for people who live in an urban setting, but its importance to Alberta's economy cannot be overstated.
One of Alberta's biggest industries is struggling to stay afloat, in large part due to the effects of COVID-19, but relief in the form of provincial and federal funding has so far done little to quell the fears of farmers.
Widespread supply chain backlogs and production cuts have touched many areas of our province's agricultural sector. Alberta's agriculture and agri-food sector are a major contributor to our provincial economy, employing more than 75,000 Albertans. In 2018, the province exported more than $11.6 billion in products from that sector.
The value of Alberta's food production goes beyond that, though. Our farmers help stabilize Canada's food supply chain and feed people in other countries. French fries, steaks, pork – you name it, odds are an Alberta farmer was involved at some point along the way.
Farmers have a tough go of it already. Grain farmers are at the mercy of the elements, trying to adjust for inclement weather, floods and droughts. Too much or too little rain eats into their profits. Late-season hailstorms can ruin a crop.
Livestock farmers, meanwhile, can find demand for their product tied to events outside their control – pork production backlogs in the U.S. mean Canadian hog farmers could be raising their animals at a loss, while cow-calf farmers could have nowhere to send their calves this fall unless backlogs of slaughter-ready cattle clear up in time.
Meanwhile, farms aren't getting cheaper to run. Statistics Canada reports the realized net farm income of agricultural producers (cash after costs and depreciation) fell 45.1 per cent in 2018. Feed, interest rates and labour costs are on the rise.
Alberta's various agricultural organizations have been pleading with governments to infuse the industry with funds to stabilize the current situation, but much more needs to be done. The response from industry reps has overwhelmingly been that more government support is needed.
In early May, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced a $42-million federal/provincial program to help feed hundreds of thousands of cattle backed up in feedlots until they can be slaughtered. Cow-calf producers say that money won't find its way to them, though, as they raise this season's calves with the risk of having no market for them in the fall.
The federal government announced $252 million in agriculture and agri-food support in May. By contrast, Canada's pork producers alone have estimated they will lose $675 million in 2020
And while the federal/provincial AgriStability program has had its payouts upped, that won't cover inputs and equipment – the main expenses for potato farmers who are facing a 30-per-cent cut in business.
The severity of these issues cannot be overstated, and the remedies must match that severity. If farms start losing viability, thousands more Canadians could lose their jobs.
COVID-19 has dealt a serious blow to the economy, and the agriculture sector is not immune. It's up to our governments to recognize this impact and take substantive action. The clock is ticking.