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In uncertain times – ag businesses adapt and deliver

  • 5.5 min read

Pandemic or not, spring is on the way, and Canada’s agriculture sector is ramping up activity. The nation’s farm and food community are adapting their operations to optimize health and safety while keeping supplies flowing during uncertain times.

“Canadian producers are coming off a tough year, but they’re resilient, and the sector is taking some imaginative approaches to help them plant crops,” says Murray Gurski, FCC Senior Director, Alliances. “We’ve never been down a road like this before with the COVID-19 virus, and there are many questions, but we’re figuring out how to get planting done.”

From retailers, fertilizer manufacturers and grain processors, to the livestock sector and machinery retailers, all approach sales and service during a pandemic with creativity and practicality.

Seed sales and grain delivery

The Canadian Seed Trade Association says members are taking measures to ensure seed is safely sold and delivered to customers. These include scheduling seed deliveries and pickups in advance, limiting face-to-face contact during sales and cross-training personnel to perform essential functions so workplaces can operate even if key staff are absent.

Kamila Konieczny, Manager of Communications and Public Relations for Richardson International Ltd, says the company is taking additional proactive steps. This includes increased sanitization at all sites, visitor management and screening protocols, alternative work arrangements and schedules, business travel restrictions and social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Transportation precautions

These actions are consistent with what CN and CP railways are doing. They’ve both added measures to restrict employee travel, increase social distancing, encourage work from home and enhance IT capacity for off-site employees and amplify cleaning regimens in trains, terminals, bunkhouses and offices.

CN has also segregated its rail traffic control functions and spread mission-critical employees over what it describes as “five highly-secure sites where they’re better protected from contamination.”

Time to order inputs

Fertilizer Canada represents manufacturers, wholesale and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate, potash and sulphur fertilizers. It says its member companies implemented COVID-19 contingency plans at manufacturing plants, storage terminals and agri-retail outlets across the country to protect employees and the public, and ensure farmers get fertilizer in time for seeding.

For the most part, they have a regular fertilizer supply across Canada for late April and early May seeding and are confident more will be available for the entire planting season.

In the field, updated contingency plans are everywhere.

Jim Campbell, General Manager of AGRIS Co-operative Ltd., asks customers to call before they visit and to conduct business by phone, email and text over the next few weeks. He suggests producers take delivery of as many of their inputs as they can early. “Seed and crop protection products are better in your possession than ours today,” Campbell says.

Beef sector plans

Richard Horne, Executive Director for Beef Farmers of Ontario, says his and other provincial beef organizations are following recommendations provided by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

These groups emphasize to have updated and appropriate risk management plans – in part for managing human resources should staff be unable to work.

“We’re taking added precautions at every link in the beef supply chain,” Horne says. “As COVID-19 has escalated, so have the measures to prevent the spread of the disease, recognizing agri-food businesses are an essential service.

Changes in livestock sales

Ryder Lee, Chief Executive Officer for Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association, also says contingency planning has forced many in the province’s beef sector to alter how they do business – particularly sales barns.

“A good portion of the business has been moving online over the years,” Lee says. “It has pushed that forward for anyone not going that way.”

But when it comes to bulls, Lee says buyers “still need to see them.” With that in mind, facilities have altered meeting times and physical viewing spaces to account for COVID-19 concerns.

“For bulls, you get one payday for several years work. Chopping the top off that has big ramifications.”

Changes in equipment services

For equipment dealers, the Canada East Equipment Dealers Association has advised members to take “all reasonable measures” to protect workers. This includes encouraging basic hygienic practices like frequent hand-washing and adapting human resources to ensure potentially sick employees feel comfortable staying home.

Other day-to-day changes include limiting customer traffic, calling ahead for parts to be left at specific pick up locations and health and safety policies for on-farm service calls.

Additional safeguards

Jeff McGavin, the operator of McGavin Farm Equipment in Southwestern Ontario, says his and other businesses have adopted additional precautions, including limiting interactions with truck drivers and ensuring employees taking service calls don’t return to the shop throughout the day. In cases where technicians need an extra part, it’s left in a designated area for self-pickup.

Canadians are fortunate that our system has been able to quickly adapt to the crisis.

He also adds they’re changing payment methods - no cash or in-person payments.

“It’s forcing some to do things differently than they’re used to, but it’s not out of the question.”

John Jamieson, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, says each step across agriculture and agri-business strengthens the public trust.

“Canadians are fortunate that our system has been able to quickly adapt to the crisis, thanks to its strength and ability to deliver on the core food values of affordability, availability and quality,” Jamieson says.

Bottom line

Despite COVID-19, seeding time approaches and food demands continue. Canada’s agriculture and agri-food community are adapting operations to optimize health and safety while keeping industry – from input dealers and grain elevators to machinery retailers and livestock auction barns - supplied with what it needs.

Article by: Matt McIntosh and Owen Roberts