Year in (Lockdown) Review

by | Feb 22, 2021 | Business, Features

Pandemic largely unfelt in Alberta fields, but farmer meetings and human contact noticeably absent.

Canada recently marked a morbid anniversary now that COVID-19 is officially one year old in the country. The global pandemic still rages on and, with little signs of stopping, a return to life as everyone once knew it, remains elusive. N95, physical distancing and vaccines were no doubt Googled more than ever in 2020. 

In Alberta, the pandemic took hold in earnest by mid-March of last year. Shortly after, grocery store queues stressed supply chains to their absolute limits. Farmers became nervous, wondering what coronavirus meant for their livelihood. However, agriculture was quickly deemed an essential service by provincial and federal governments just prior to seeding, so the show continued. 

While Alberta farmers have different levels of personal comfort about the virus, one thing is clear — farming still happened, and the year generally turned out well from a business perspective.

“They ended up harvesting a very large crop, in some cases, record yields,” Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, says. “For the most part, it was a normal production year.”

Steve says his staff were inspired by farmers’ commitment during COVID-19 and were extra attentive to their needs, providing them the knowledge they needed on several topics, both agronomic and policy-related.

The joint commissions began to produce in-the-field webinars hosted by their agronomist Jeremy Boychyn and uploaded them to their YouTube page. The webinars range in topics from in-field nitrogen applications to plant growth regulators, Fusarium head blight and post-herbicide weed scouting. From Steve’s perspective, technology has been the great equalizer throughout this pandemic.

“It’s become a dominant part of our lives as a communications tool and I don’t think that will change,” he explains. “Those (webinars) were well-attended because farmers were missing field days and the interaction.”

The pandemic has gone in waves of case-load severity. During a calm period, the commissions hosted two in-person events — Lacombe Field Day in late July and the two-day Wheatstalk event in Fairview in early August. In both settings, attendees were separated into small cohorts to take in the agronomic education. The Lacombe event, often attended by 100-plus people, was a similar success and Steve says he was “proud to be able to pull that one off.”

He says whenever Alberta gets “beyond the pandemic,” there will be a return to in-person events. In late November the commissions decided to cancel the annual in-person Prairie Cereals Summit in Banff, on Dec. 9 to 11, as daily COVID-19 cases in Alberta spiked to over 1,500. The Alberta Barley AGM and delegate and director session moved to an online format to be held Dec. 9. They also moved their annual winter regional meetings online only days before they were scheduled to begin in mid-November.

“We re-evaluate those plans every single day as we see things unfold,” he says of on-the-fly adjustments. “Fortunately, we have a very strong team and very strong events manager that can quickly adjust as needed. That’s why maybe we’ve taken a little bit of a different approach versus some other groups.”

With the lack of in-person events and communication does come unexpected benefits, though. Just ask Leanne Fischbuch.

The executive director of Alberta Pulse Growers explains how her contact with government has never been better. Shortly after the pandemic set in, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada began hosting conference calls for industry that occurred three times per week at the beginning of the lockdown.

“(Calls) had a variety of topics and the federal government would use that as a way to share information for the sector, get feedback on various things they’d been announcing or issues that had come up,” she says, adding other federal ministries were also on different conference calls. “Those are really great opportunities we had to dialogue with government.”

Those calls happen less frequently now, but Fischbuch says she still periodically calls in to stay informed for her members. 

Many in industry, including Fischbuch, hopes the calls continue indefinitely. The dialogue helped her voice concerns over Alberta-specific issues, such as a gap in research created by the COVID-19.

Federal research facilities were shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Two of the last research centres to reopen were in Lacombe and Lethbridge, a pair of critical stations for pulse-related research. While Fischbuch estimates provincial facilities are running around 80 per cent capacity, federal operations are much lower, around 30 per cent. 

“The impact that it had really challenges the research program we have investments in,” she says, specifically about federal programs. “Some work did continue in dry bean and pea breeding, but it’s also limited in the reach of what they could achieve this year because they were only allowed to operate on federal government-owned land.”

Certain research areas in Alberta have co-operations between provincially and federally owned lands. 

“I know scientists wanted to get out into the field and do what they do best, but they were limited with what they could achieve in their research program,” she explains. “That was by far the biggest thing that affected Alberta Pulse with respect to COVID.”

Above all, the pandemic has continued to highlight how farmers are just like every other person when it comes to human contact and feeling a semblance of normality in daily life. 

Ward Toma is the general manager of Alberta Canola and says his members are a mixed bag. Some have been able to successfully pivot to new safety protocols, primarily mask wearing with people entering the farmyard and are exercising high degrees of caution. Many members have implemented new protocols for simple tasks such as swapping out a tractor driver with appropriate cab cleaning. Others he hears from simply venture to the post box weekly and rarely see anyone. 

“Farmers are no different than the general population,” he explains. “There are folks that are incredibly social and extroverted who thrive on social interactions. Those farmers would have trouble. Things are going to be a lot harder in the winter season. That’s going to be a real challenge for those people.”

Toma says Alberta Canola supports the Do More Ag Foundation, a mental health support network for Canadian farmers, which has had an uptick in farmers reaching out since COVID-19 set in.

In addition, the canola industry has crush plants to deal with and Toma admits he was initially worried the pandemic may interrupt supply chains like it did with packing plants. Luckily for his members, it never materialized.

“(Crush plants) don’t have a high mass of people in that confined space,” he says. “It’s very much industrial type presses and processes that are run with machines. While there are people there, they’re not shoulder to shoulder.”

Aside from hearing smaller issues related to members being asked to not come into the grading room during a grain delivery, Toma says the year, farming-wise, has been relatively normal.

“The food production and farm system handled it fairly well,” he says. 

And while Canola’s farm meetings are all online, Toma is actually excited as he wants to engage “a demographic that never went to meetings.”

“The future, particularly for our AGM and grower meetings, the technology and cost dropped to the point that we might be able to stream them online and bring a whole new demographic to the meetings,” he says.

Temporary Foreign Workers

With border closures, Canadian farm managers scrambled when it came to securing foreign labour. Issues around labour shortage in spring were top of mind for many and the two-week mandatory quarantine period compounded many issues. 

The federal government has pledged more than $100 million to date to support farms that utilize temporary foreign workers (TFWs) and help with safety protocol implementation since April 2020 in various ways, including the extension of its Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program until Nov. 30, 2020. Alberta has a very small percentage of the country’s TFWs and provincially it was a minor issue.