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BC farmers, growers dealing with rapid market disruption

Demand for BC meat and produce shifts dramatically from restaurants, hotels to grocery stores
'Our retail business is booming' -- Murray Driediger, president BC Fresh

One of the first concerns for governments responding to the COVID-19 was to ensure food security and ensure supply chains are not disrupted.

B.C. ranchers, dairy farmers, fruit and vegetable growers, and salmon farmers continue to produce the food we need, but they have had to respond to a very rapid and dramatic change to the marketplace.

Restaurants and bars have been shut down, and hotels have seen business crash, resulting in a very sudden drop in demand for produce, meat, milk, butter and eggs.

But demand for food on the retail side has offset that sudden demand destruction, although it has required some fairly quick changes to things like packaging and logistics.

“The closure of all the bars and restaurants, and the food service industry coming to a grinding halt, that has probably been the biggest impact,” said Murray Driediger, president of BC Fresh, a grower-owned company representing 60 BC vegetable growers.

“Our retail business is booming. So basically business on one end has come to a grinding halt, and business on the other end has picked up dramatically. So all and all, we’re doing about the same amount of volume as what we were before, but there’s been a massive shift in the marketplace.”

BC salmon farmers have had the same experience.

“Production has shifted,” said BC Salmon Farmers association spokesperson Shawn Hall. “As restaurants are closing, obviously there’s less demand there, but retail sales have actually increased.”

Food service was traditionally 40% and retail 60%, Driediger said. It’s now about 10% food service and 90% retail.

The one agricultural sector that may get hammered is flowers and ornamental plants, said Reg Ens, executive director for the BC Agriculture Council, which represents 14,000 farmers, ranchers, and growers.

Those growers would typically expect a huge volume of business for Easter and Mother’s Day.

“Flowers are not a priority, so they’re cutting back on their orders," Ens said. "So that’s definitely leaving that sector a bit challenged."

One concern that producers have right now is keeping workers at food processing and packaging plants and warehouses. The agrifood sector is an essential service, but some workers are simply not showing up for work, Ens said.

“I’ve heard this from the potato sector and some of the greenhouse sector,” Ens said. “With all of the messaging for people to stay home from work, some of the food plants and the packaging plants are being short-staffed because staff believe that they should be staying home too. So some of the farms are having trouble. Their labour force isn’t complete and they’re not able to run full shift.”

Driediger also has concerns about the coming planting and harvesting seasons.

BC Fresh relies on 300 to 400 temporary foreign workers from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean each year, from May through November.

Earlier this month, the federal government exempted foreign workers from a general international travel ban. Driediger is just a little worried that there could be problems related to things like testing and quarantining that could delay getting workers when they are needed.

“I think the political will is there to get the foreign workers in,” Driediger said. “There’s obviously a lot of logistics. There’s going to be a lot of issues on testing and quarantine and even being able to issue visas in country of origin. “There’s a lot of different mechanics involved and how quickly they’ll actually be able to pull it off is anyone’s guess.

“We’re not in any immediate danger, but in the next couple of months there’s going to be a dramatic need to get our farm workers back into the country. By the time we hit June and July in British Columbia, we’re rolling 100%.”

With so many Canadians temporarily laid off, there is always the possibility of hiring more domestic workers.

“It’s possible,” Driediger said. “I guess the problem comes, once you start to hit peak harvest – as July, August and September rolls around – if those people are all of a sudden called back to work, then there’s nobody left to harvest the crops.”

As for farmers who rely on farmers markets for some of their business, that too is being disrupted by bans on large gathering.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture recently announced plans to help them sell online.

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