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Uncertainty hangs over Wellington County farmers

Wellington County farmers are facing down closed processing plants, a disrupted supply chain and unprecedented anxiety in light of COVID-19
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Tony Saxon/GuelphToday file photo

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Dumping milk, closed meat processing plants and a disrupted supply chain are all issues facing county farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what’s really plaguing them is uncertainty. 

“We are just at the point where we are ready to plant our crops in the spring,” said Mark Reusser, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) vice-president. “You make a significant investment at this time in the year and we don’t really know what to expect in the fall when we are ready to harvest.”

Reusser explained Wellington County is known for dairy production, raising livestock, growing crops to feed livestock and to a lesser extent vegetable production. He said the COVID crisis is causing variables that make the price of crops and livestock unpredictable. 

“The biggest impact of all is the anxiety brought on by not knowing what’s going to happen,” Reusser said. “I would say that’s pervasive in the rural community.”

Fergus dairy farmer, and Wellington Federation of Agriculture president, Janet Harrop said dairy supply is plentiful but processing and distribution has become difficult. She explained that some large processing plants have slowed or shut down due to workers being sick or afraid to go to work. This is why milk had to be dumped.

“It’s a difficult time because people are actually looking for dairy products, people are cooking more at home,” Harrop said. “The demand was there but the processing in the middle, there were some issues.”

Reusser said dumping milk is necessary because cows will keep producing regardless of circumstances.

“Farmers can’t just turn off their cows,” Reusser said. “We had to get rid of some milk because there’s just too much.”

The food service industry shutdown has also significantly impacted the other side of dairy production which is butterfat used to make things like coffee creamer, butter and cheese.

“Tim Horton’s uses a lot of cream and their numbers are down,” Harrop said. “Restaurants use a lot of types of products that home users don’t like high-end cheese and higher fat products.”

Reusser echoed this sentiment specifically noting takeout pizza as having a major ripple effect.

“Mozzarella cheese production has just fallen off a cliff,” Reusser said. “Nobody is eating pizza, there’s a little bit of takeout but nothing like it used to be.”

Harrop noted that meat processing has been an issue since before the COVID crisis. Now with processing plants slowing or closing, there is a serious backlog.

“In the beef industry we’ve seen a 30 to 40 per cent drop in our price in the last two weeks because there is no processing capacity,” Harrop said. “We can’t really send them because there’s no place for them to go.”

There’s a similar problem in the pork industry. 

“A significant amount of Ontario production goes to Quebec for processing–about 50,000 hogs a week,” Reusser said. “Two plants in Quebec have shut down.”

There isn’t a solution across the border because a number of plants there are going through the same thing, including a South Dakota plant that Harrop said processes five per cent of all pork for the US.

This is creating a backlog that is particularly troubling for livestock farmers.

“You raise an animal to be a particular size, you have to plan well ahead from a feeding perspective,” Harrop said, using a chicken taking six weeks to get to four pounds as an example. “Now you have to keep this product and feed it longer and then they weigh more and it may not be a product the end user wants.”

Katie Normet, owner of Rivers Edge Goat Dairy, said despite the situation she is actually doing very well and her small farm can’t keep up with demand. 

Normet was initially worried because the Guelph Farmer’s Market closed which accounts for more than half her revenue. 

Normet is from Oakville and had no family background in farming before starting the goat farm 20 years ago. She thinks her connection and understanding of “city people” has helped her to continue to serve her market.

“For us it was very easy, we had our email list, we had all our contacts, we’ve always had that connection to our clients,” Normet said. 

Another issue she sees as a Wellington Federation of Agriculture director is farmers and associations not communicating with each other. 

“Nobody is talking to anybody,” Normet said. “We can and should be working together and unfortunately I don’t see it happening and my colleagues don’t see it happening either.”

Normet’s biggest concern goes back to that underlying anxiety. 

“Everybody is still doing business as usual but I think the biggest thing is the uncertainty,” Normet said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty on what to plant, what crops are needed.”

Reusser said there has been a bit of help from the government. One of the major wins was allowing who he described as crucial and skilled migrants workers into the country. He acknowledged that has less of an impact on county farms as migrant workers tend to work in fresh vegetable and greenhouse production. 

He said government programs for farmers have been under-funded for years and the OFA is lobbying for the federal and provincial government to fully fund those programs and more.

“We are competing with Donald Trump’s America where he funnelled more than $30 billion to farmers,” Reusser said. “We here in Canada have received virtually nothing from our governments, yet we are expected to compete with Americans.”

Wellington-Halton Hills MPP Ted Arnott said the province had previously announced a number of proposals and tax deferrals to support small businesses that would benefit those involved in agriculture.

“The provincial government is trying to respond to the issues as they’re identified and I would expect and anticipate that there will continue to be announcements on a daily basis for the foreseeable future,” Arnott said. “I would anticipate that we’ll hear more in the coming days.”

Arnott said he has always felt advocating for farm families is one of his most important responsibilities as an MPP. 

“If we need to do more, I would encourage farmers, the general farm organizations and the commodity associations to communicate with me directly to what they need,” Arnott said. “I would certainly want to do what I could to help.”