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Feeding a nation under lockdown

Posted by stephanie rogers on August 4, 2020 in News, Research
Freshly harvested carrots
Freshly harvested carrots

By Niecole Killawee

Katie Keddy (Class of ’08) is no schoolteacher, but she spent the spring homeschooling her two young boys. Like other parents across the country, Keddy’s daily routine was upended when schools (and pretty much everything else) shut down in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. A produce farmer by trade, Keddy tackled the responsibility of her children’s education head on, filling in as their teacher while her duties on the farm piled up.

She and her husband Phil (Class of ’06) manage their second-generation family farming business, Keddy Nursery, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

“Everything I would have done on the farm while the kids were in school had to be done by someone else,” said Katie. “I struggled a lot with that in the beginning, feeling like I was abandoning my industry. It’s like a part of you is missing, especially in the springtime.”

Keddy’s shift from farmer to teacher isn’t the only way the pandemic has affected Keddy Nursery operations so far this year. They’re in the business of supplying North American farmers with strawberry nursery stock, in addition to being Atlantic Canada’s largest producer of sweet potatoes. Their small operation isn’t mechanized, so nearly 80 temporary foreign workers are employed on the farm each year to help the Keddy family plant, grow, and harvest their crops. These are labour-intensive jobs that can’t be filled by locals alone, explained Keddy.

When news of the Canadian border closures arose in March, the prospect of losing the ability to hire temporary foreign workers added to the mounting anxiety felt among the country’s produce farmers.

“Farmers are known to be optimists,” said Keddy. “But this certainly knocked us down for a few minutes, wondering what we were going to do if this didn’t happen… As farmers, we want to see food on the shelves for Canadians. It’s one of the most important jobs out there — and one we take seriously. Everyone has to eat.”

Fortunately, temporary foreign workers were recognized for the essential roles they play in this country and were exempt from travel restrictions, providing some of the agriculture community with momentary relief. Although at the beginning of the spring planting season, Keddy Nursery was just getting by with about 10 fewer employees than they would normally have on board during such a critical time of year.

“Right now, there are some paperwork issues in Mexico,” said Keddy during an interview in May. That was holding up the already-delayed arrival of workers who would still be required to self-isolate for two weeks upon entry. While the federal government announced a $50-million fund to help farmers and others who rely on foreign workers pay part of the wages for quarantined staff, there’s no fund on this planet that can make up for lost time.

“Spring doesn’t wait for paperwork,” said Keddy. “It’s spring whether there’s a pandemic or not. Summer is still coming, pandemic or not. Your crops are still going to need to be planted and harvested.”

Phil and Katie Keddy

System error

Earlier this year In Western Canada, COVID-19 was ravaging Alberta’s meat processing workforce — both local and temporary foreign workers alike. Employees were falling ill in numbers so high that one of the facilities — the Cargill Canada beef processing plant in High River — became home to North America’s largest single-site outbreak at one point. Putting aside questions of worker’s rights and safety for now — a topic deserving of far more elaboration than this article can provide — the outbreaks led to reduced operations or complete plant shutdowns. Consider what these interruptions highlight: a case study for what happens to the entire food supply system when problems occur at the processing and manufacturing level.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in the Faculty of Agriculture with a cross-appointment in the Faculty of Management, heads up Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab and has been following the ever-changing landscape of food supply, distribution, and consumer behaviour since the pandemic started.

He explained that 90% of beef consumed in Canada is processed in just a few different plants, Cargill being one of them. An interruption at these facilities causes problems at each end of the food supply chain. Consumers will have less access to meat because product isn’t moving down the line at its usual pace and quantities — restocking empty shelves takes longer and prices climb, further compounding access issues for those who can’t afford the higher price tags. But looking backwards in the supply chain after processing delays also paints a troublesome picture.

“If you don’t make processing the centre point of your agri-food strategy, the first people to pay are farmers themselves,” said Dr. Charlebois. Bottlenecks emerge at the processing level, leading to a backlog of livestock on farms. Meat producers are forced to keep their cattle and hogs on farms longer while they wait for the processing plants to catch up. The longer the stay, the more money farmers need to spend on feed.  

In light of this and other similar issues, another federal emergency aid package was announced in early May — this time with a value of $252-million — to help mitigate the associated pandemic-fuelled financial risks that can threaten entire farming operations. Processors are eligible for that funding too, suggesting the government recognizes that when they fall, so too do the producers. That was a welcome change of tune, according to Dr. Charlebois.

“Processing is the like forgotten child in Canada,” said Charlebois. “The announcement [of the aid package] was astonishing because for the first time, I actually saw a government considering processing as a part of the agri-food sector.”

Jeannie van Dyk (Class of ’78), a Nova Scotian dairy farmer and vice-chair of the Agropur Dairy Cooperative’s board of directors, said the pandemic has put a lot of pressure on dairy producers and processors too. When the food service industry came to a halt as a result of lockdowns, the demand for dairy products across the country plummeted. Despite an increase in orders from food retailers, it wasn’t enough to cover the loss from restaurant business, said van Dyk.

The supply management system used to match supply to demand and stabilize prices of certain commodities in the Canadian marketplace applies to dairy products, but unfortunately there was still a surplus earlier this year as a result of the unprecedented fluctuation in the market.

“We committed large volumes of dairy products to food banks across the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario,” said van Dyk of the dairy co-op’s attempts to redistribute the surplus, adding that marketing boards have since reduced quotas to sync up supply and demand again and farmers were quick to act in reducing their production volumes.

“The decline in sales and higher costs resulted in challenges to our bottom line and up to now, government programs aren’t adapted to our processing situation,” said van Dyk. “Going forward, we expect to see an improvement in the market situation. Milk is a nutrient dense food and given that dairy products have a place of choice in consumers’ minds, the future still looks good for our industry.”

Disrupting retail

There’s also much to be said about the changes in consumer behaviour and attitude amidst the pandemic. Through the Agri-Food Analytics Lab and in partnership with the Angus Reid Institute, Dr. Charlebois has been conducting survey after survey to track how the pandemic is affecting Canadians when it comes to food.

“Understanding what’s happening out there is really key. It’s changing every day,” said Dr. Charlebois.

One such survey of 1,503 Canadians examined how households were approaching essential shopping during lockdown in April.

There was a wave of panic-buying early on, of course; toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and flour were significantly harder to come by when people began to worry about running out of essential items. When it was clear retailers were able to restock the items, those fears subsided and made way for a more calculated approach to grocery shopping.

Results from The Grocery Experience showed 64% of survey respondents were still going to grocery stores but they were buying more than usual to make trips less frequent. When they did go, 81% of respondents reported using extra hand sanitizer when shopping, 30% were wearing facemasks, and 26% were wearing gloves. When they got home, 40% of those surveyed reported wiping down their groceries with disinfectant.

When asked about their intentions post-pandemic, 47 % of respondents reported a desire to do more cooking at home — perhaps an effect of lockdowns idling local restaurant industries.  Those still itching for a professionally prepared meal turned to food delivery apps like Uber Eats, which have become somewhat of a lifeline for the food service industry this year. The apps have gained popularity during the pandemic and The Agri-Food Analytics Lab predicts that they’ll generate over $2.5 billion in revenue by the end of the year, doubling the total of their Canadian sales in 2019.   

The survey also indicates a growing consumer interest in buying food online post-COVID. This, according to Dr. Charlebois, highlights one of the most notable changes in Canada’s food supply system since the pandemic started. Large grocery chains, farmer’s markets and smaller food retailers have been turning to e-commerce opportunities to keep sales up during lockdown.

A virtual food shopping experience reduces the risk of catching or transmitting the virus, but it also has the potential to disrupt the Canadian food retail landscape post-pandemic.

“E-commerce can actually make the supply chain more democratic,” said Charlebois. “As soon as consumers know they can buy food online, a lot of things can happen. Farmers can start selling food directly to consumers, and it’s the same for processors.”

Love for local

Bill Withrow (Class of ‘81) is a beef farmer and co-manages a family-owned meat shop and local food market in Elmsdale, Nova Scotia. His order books from earlier this year show a sharp increase in sales that began mid-March when the World Health Organization first declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Sales at Withrow’s Farm Market have remained above-average ever since.

“We do a lot of restaurant and wholesale business too, and that died down at the same time,” said Withrow, who’s also involved with Rocky Knoll Farm, another one of the family’s operations. “It’s like somebody turned one switch off and another one on. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Withrow has been following public health recommendations to create a safe shopping experience for his customers and began offering a curbside pick-up service so people could call ahead to make their purchases. In his perspective, the pandemic has brought in new customers with a growing affection for buying local.

On Prince Edward Island, organic farmer Marc Schurman (Class of ’97) of Schurman Family Farm noticed “an uptick in demand and appreciation for local food” as well. While a renewed interest in the local food movement is generally good news, Schurman admitted that it’s a mixed blessing during a pandemic.

Previously, the Schurman family would sell their Atlantic Grown Organics line of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers direct-to-consumer at local farmer’s markets. By moving to an online sales model, they’ve have adapted to the pandemic’s contactless reality — but not without a few challenges along the way.

“Now it’s so difficult to get food to people,” said Schurman. “Selecting [appropriate] bagging and reconciling payment on many small individual orders is just not as easy as standing at a farmer’s market booth and handing out produce in exchange for cash.”

Both Keddy and Withrow spoke of the same additional pressures facing small producers as they’ve been forced to move away from the conventional in-store shopping experience. Despite the hiccups, customers have been nothing but supportive during these uncertain times, said Withrow.

“They’re waiting in line outside for 15-20 minutes before they can come into the shop, never complaining. People have been unbelievably patient. By shopping local and being patient with us, consumers are helping us as much as they can,” said Withrow.

Glass half full

Perhaps the pandemic has created a newfound awareness of the food supply system among Canadians — at least that’s what Dr. Charlebois and Keddy believe.

“It’s important that the public values Canadian food and farms,” said Keddy. “It’s a weird thing to say, but there’s opportunity in this pandemic too. It’s showing us the strengths of our food system, but also the weaknesses. It’s time to look at those weaknesses and turn them into opportunities and conversations that set us up for a more secure future.”

Katie Keddy might not be a schoolteacher. But as a farmer, the rest of us could certainly learn a thing or two from her about resilience and optimism — traits that could do us some good as we wait out an unprecedented pandemic. Year after year, farmers fine-tune these traits as they move through the cycle of seasons at the mercy of whatever mother nature decides to throw their way. This year, it happened to be a novel coronavirus. Yet there they still stand, with the weight of feeding a nation on their shoulders.