BARRIE ISLAND – Island farmer Jordan Miller, who is a director-at-large for Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO), says the beef industry has not yet been impacted as heavily as others, despite production plant closures, but warns that without significant additional support the industry will face major challenges in the near and distant future.
“The term which best describes the government’s approach to the beef sector is ‘underwhelming.’ We haven’t necessarily seen the support we thought we should get,” says Mr. Miller.
“The announcement from the federal government (last week) is just starting to scratch the surface and we’re hoping they’ll continue and follow through with more support from the initial announcement,” he adds. “‘Underwhelming’ would be the response to the federal government and ‘severely disappointed’ would be the response to the provincial government.”
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $252 million in support for the agriculture sector as a whole, including production facilities.
The sector had been calling for a $2.6 billion investment. Although the announced funds are only 10 percent of that original ask, the federal government has hinted that more funding would be coming in the future.
Processing facility closures, while they have not yet impacted Mr. Miller’s individual operation in a major way, pose major concerns. Provincial processing plants have traditionally struggled to meet demand, something he says will be worse as larger facilities shutter and the burden shifts to operators similar to the Limestone Island Abattoir in Providence Bay.
Mr. Miller says the production timeline requires producers to plan two years in advance, which means the impacts will continue to be felt into the future. Bulls are sent out in mid-July to produce calves for the following May, 2021 in this case, with those calves being marketable by the following May (2022) at the earliest.
Feedlots, the primary destination for calves, impose price penalties for calves that are grown beyond a certain weight. Canada and Ontario specifically risk losing a large percentage of their feedlots, which would trickle up to cow-calf producers in Northern Ontario, Mr. Miller says.
The Canadian government has announced a set-aside program as part of its initiatives, a program that has been effective in past crises such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly called ‘mad cow disease’) in 2003.
When cows age beyond their calving years, farmers will generally send them to feedlots. Because of the additional pressure, the government will offer money to farmers through the set-aside program to hold those cows for another year.
Recently, Mr. Miller has been asked to serve with a dozen others on an advisory council with Ernie Hardeman, minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, about how to re-stimulate the agricultural economy and strengthen it into the future. However, the level of engagement with the minister has been less than hoped and farmers have begun engaging more with other Members of Parliament.
“Basically, (the Ontario government’s) response to everything has been, ‘what can we do that won’t cost a single penny?’ We get that they’re claiming they inherited a lot of debt from the Liberals but the inaction has been astounding,” says Mr. Miller.
During the election cycle, he says, now-Premier Doug Ford had promised a $50 million top-up to the agricultural risk management program, an offering that helps young producers during tough market conditions. The 2003 BSE crisis also exposed the value of this program.
“A lot of producers had to get out for financial reasons, and it’s left a chasm for a whole age group of producers across Canada,” says Mr. Miller.
He has cited this demographic anomaly in previous interviews with The Expositor, noting that there are plenty of aging farmers and a growing contingent of young ones, but those in their 40s and 50s are very underrepresented. These individuals would have been starting their operations when BSE emerged.
“We’re just hitting a window now where young producers are getting interested, and here on the Island we have a great group,” he says. “We need to try to do everything we can to keep these producers viable and engaged … (otherwise) they’re going to be in a situation where it’s going to be time to sell off the cattle and look for employment elsewhere. In my opinion, that’s a travesty.”
Mr. Miller acknowledges that money is not a primary motivator for farmers, citing the common low incomes in the sector, but says producers should still be able to earn enough to support their family, cover operation costs and save for the future.
Photos of empty beef counters at major grocery stores have appeared on social media and Mr. Miller says companies like McDonalds—which prides itself on supporting Canadian beef farmers—have turned to importing meat to keep up with demand.
“Supporting local, even if it costs a bit more, is going to be a big movement. We have lots of that here,” says Mr. Miller, noting the success of farm-based brands like The Burt Farm and Pure Island Beef.
He adds that certain cuts of beef are not as desirable for Canadian consumers, so the export market will always be important.
Mr. Miller has begun exploring direct sales of his products and his wife Kate is managing a new Instagram page to promote these offerings, @Grandview.Manitoulin. It’s a completely new venture for his sixth-generation, 136-year-old family operation at Grandview Farms.
“At this point I’d call it a fun project,” says Mr. Miller. “It feels like climbing Mount Everest in terms of how big of a shift it is but it’s our best way of hedging ourselves.”
Although interfacing directly with consumers comes with challenges for producers, he stresses the importance of supporting local agriculture because it drives the local economy and lets shoppers know where their food originates.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. Now’s the time where we need to band together as a community and try to support each other,” says Mr. Miller. “Hopefully, people will be willing to take advantage of the opportunity and try new things.”
Measures Mr. Miller is hoping to see from upper governments include a relaxation of strict sales regulations so provincially inspected meat can be sold beyond Ontario, increased provincial processing capacity and long-term planning discussions between producers and governments.