OTTAWA — Add chickens, mushrooms and potatoes to the ever-longer list of products being purchased by the federal government to combat the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A program being heralded as the first of its kind will see the Liberals spend $50 million to buy up surplus food as the closure of restaurants, hotels and other major purchasers of Canadian products results in an oversupply.

The money is part of a $252 million aid package announced Tuesday that’s aimed at easing multiple pressure points on the beleaguered agriculture sector.

The purchased products, which Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau suggested will include chicken, mushrooms and potatoes, will in turn be distributed to food banks and other community organizations who can use them.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture last month had asked for $2.6 billion in aid, and some of its members immediately said the funds announced Tuesday are simply not enough.

“Without additional financial assistance across the industry, our domestic food supply and the entire food value chain is in jeopardy,” said Keith Currie, the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“This is critical to our food security and the health and well-being of all Canadians.”

Others noted no funds were announced for the producers of fruits and vegetables, commodities whose growing seasons are now getting underway.

“Our members are at a point where decisions are being made about whether they can even afford to produce their crops this year,” Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association, said in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Bibeau acknowledged the sector has asked for much more than Tuesday’s package provided.

“This is an initial investment and if we need to add more, we will,” Trudeau said.

Farmers and suppliers face a cascading series of problems this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many addressed in some measure by Tuesday’s announcement.

The temporary foreign workers who plant and harvest food can’t all come to Canada but, as they do manage to arrive, they and domestic workers need equipment and supplies such as masks to keep them safe and able to do their jobs while respecting virus mitigation protocols.

Some $77 million was allocated to that problem Tuesday, with those funds also being used to expand domestic processing capacity.

Bibeau said deciding which processing plants will get those funds will focus on the objective of the program, making sure Canada can handle more of its own product in the short term.

Those funds factor into another issue.

With workers in place, attention can turn to getting crops in the field or animals off to slaughter. But meat-processing plants in particular — some of which have been grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks among staff — are at capacity, and so there is nowhere to send the animals.

The government announced $125 million for that area Tuesday, with $100 million of the funds to be split between hog and beef producers to account for the extra animals they must now feed.

If the products make it through processing, where to sell them? That’s where the surplus buy comes in. Potato farmers have been among those sounding the alarm about growing stockpiles. There are an estimated 90.7 million kilograms (200 million pounds) of Canadian french fry potatoes stuck in storage, for example.

Luc Gervais’ New Brunswick farm is currently sitting on about 9.1 million kilograms of potatoes. He said it is better that some of his excess could be used to feed people in need, but a fundamental imbalance remains.

He and other farmers are caught between having an oversupply on hand from last year’s crop and potentially not growing enough for next year because demand is so uncertain.

“I don’t think anybody has the perfect answer,” he said.

“But if nothing happens in the next few months, we are in for a really bad situation.”

The dairy-processing industry will also be getting its own $200-million fund to help buy up more milk and related products, a move which requires legislative change.

Bibeau pointed out that Tuesday’s announcement builds on previous commitments to increase access to funding for farms and to support temporary foreign workers, food banks and nutrition programs in the North.

The federal government is also topping up the amount of financial support it provides to farmers through existing income stability programs, a move that will also require provinces to kick in extra cash.

Bibeau said the farmers and producers need to access the money that’s already on the table through top-up funds like AgriStability and others. But she promised to keep talking — and listening — to hear what they need next.

“We are trying to align our response with the problems,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020. 

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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