Federal ag supports ‘too little, too late’ for mushroom growers

Timing of programs for TFWs, surplus food purchases leaves aid out of reach: CMGA

Canadian Mushrooms Growers’ Association CEO Ryan Koeslag speaks online with members of the Commons standing ag committee. (Video screengrab from Parl.gc.ca)

Ottawa — Members of Parliament sitting on the committee dealing with agricultural issues continue to hear concerns over the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

During the Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food’s online meeting Wednesday, representatives of the Canadian Mushrooms Growers’ Association raised “grave concerns” over the support CMGA members have received.

CEO Ryan Koeslag explained how additional measures put in place by Ottawa to assist farmers are not reaching mushroom growers, citing the $50 million in funding made available to help support temporary foreign workers.

The federal government offered $1,500 per temporary foreign worker to help cover costs associated with putting measures in place to lower the risk of the virus among the employees.

“Not a penny has been received by our farms,” Koeslag said, telling MPs that workers on mushroom farms were already in Canada and therefore their employers were ineligible to qualify for the program, despite still having to spend money on additional housing and other measures to maintain social distancing and other pandemic mitigation efforts.

The federal government is unlikely to be purchasing food surpluses from mushroom growers, he added, because their production was not altered until week four of the pandemic and the program is only available to manage oversupply beginning in May.

Other programs, such as a fund to help ensure personal protective equipment is in place, are prioritizing other sectors — meat processors, for example — or have not yet been rolled out.

“We don’t care where our funds come from, but as of now nothing has been received and we are going to enter into a territory of too little, too late,” Koeslag said during his virtual testimony to the committee.

Mushroom farmers are implementing costly measures to mitigate the virus’ spread out of their own pockets, at a collective cost of $250,000 per week amongst the association’s 52 members, he said.

While exports to the U.S. have increased, Koeslag said that is unlikely to be long-lived.

He echoed complaints from other commodity groups that currently business risk management programs are ineffective.

‘Direct support’

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) filed a written submission to the committee outlining its thoughts on the government’s response to the pandemic.

“Further immediate measures are required for many agricultural producers to address cash flow issues and continue their operations,” SARM said. “The federal initiatives announced to date are a good start, but we are very disappointed more wasn’t provided to ensure immediate food sustainability by providing direct support to those producing our food.”

It also called for a more affordable livestock price insurance program, saying it is “critical” for new producers lacking the equity needed to borrow enough money.

SARM also called for changes to business risk management programs, particularly AgriStability, arguing it does not provide adequate support.

The organization called on the federal government to ensure the food supply chain remains operational.

“We would also encourage the federal government to focus efforts on developing federal health-based best practices specifically designed for the agriculture sector to use to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their operations so they can continue to operate during a pandemic,” the submission read.

A need for broadband connectivity and the further exemptions from the carbon tax were also requested.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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