How COVID19 is affecting local farmers and producers

Stettler Auction Mart encouraging social distancing

An uncertain future, unstable economy and transportation issues are nothing new to Alberta farmers. The current COVID-19 situation seems to be no different. That's not to say that there haven't been disruptions or changes that have affected local agriculture, but for the most part things are business as usual.

Animals still need tending, chores still need doing and the day to day operations of the farm aren't dictated by the threat of illness. In fact, even when most farmers and ranchers do come down with a health ailment of some description, they can still be found working on the farm rather than laying in bed getting the required rest.

For most, it's the future that is in question, more so now than ever. Fears of a return to 20% interest rates abound and with markets down, many may be forced to choose between waiting for the market to rebound or selling well below market value.

Kyle Stuckey operates near Camrose, Alberta, and his farm relies heavily on agricultural events like K Days and petting zoos for the majority of its yearly income. "If those events are canceled for the year I will not be able to continue farming." he explains.

Stuckey also works full time at Highway 9 where he has seen a cutback in hours already, with fears that more are on the way. Especially if they begin to limit the flow of goods.

"Less money means less money for my family," he says, "less money for my family means animals need to get sold off to make it work."

Those who choose to sell now, however, are faced with another hurdle. The Alberta Government's order to limit gatherings of more than 50 people has, in turn, made it much more difficult for auction markets to operate properly. With only fifty buyers allowed inside the sales barn at any given time, this puts a limit on the potential bids available to sellers.

Crystal Rairdan says that Stettler Auction Mart and their agriculture supply store are still operating, but they have had to make some changes to the way they deliver their services. Seating has been altered to force distances between customers and entry has been limited to buyers and sellers only to ensure that spectators don't take up the limited space available at the auctions, in addition to closing their kitchen and dining area for the time being. So far they have been lucky and haven't had to turn anyone away but they continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds.

Contingency plans are ready to put into play should it be necessary but Rairdan is reasonably confident that between their online auction live streams and the ability to accept online or phone payments, that they will be able to continue to operate. Agriculture is a very resilient industry and farmers aren't scared to get their hands dirty, so Rairdan is sure that this too shall pass. In the meantime, the staff that is still on shift just try to keep their humour up and pass their time cleaning when not busy with their daily tasks.

Jim Long, who operates near Stettler, relies on tourism to keep his farm in operation. Every year Jim loads up his team of heavy horses and heads to Big White where he operates sleigh rides through the winter months. He says that tourism is taking the biggest hit that he has seen so far, with many businesses in that area faced with the difficult decision of closing permanently. Long also mentions the seasonal workers who find themselves stranded in Canada without jobs or places to live.

Kellie, whose family raises cattle near Gadsby, wonders how farms are supposed to shut down to begin with. "I'm waiting to see if they are going to help the farmers that can't shut down and get EI. Everyone is shutting down and getting paid. We can't shut down," she states. Although she admits, "there is no place I'd rather be than on the farm quarantined with my family and chickens. We just have to wait out this storm. Hopefully, it ends soon."

Herbal based equine supplement business owner Donna Weatherly says, "I'm a bit worried as to what happens when people have no work. I think as things tighten up in the coming couple of weeks we will start to see changes. I do believe there will be a boom on the other side of this for sure. The recovery will be determined by the length and severity of the lockdown."

Others agree with her that there might be a silver lining to the situation. The current pandemic could see people seeking an alternative to the grocery store when looking to purchase goods in the future. Some, like pork producer Dean Jones, think the current situation might be a good thing. "We feel that this will benefit many local farmers for the sale of meats and produce," he explained, after seeing an increased demand for his products due to "panic buyers".

Of all the things that Jim Long has heard so far, and the one thing he thought might be worth sharing with people in regards to the current COVID-19 situation is "we may never know if we did too much, but we'll sure as hell know if we didn't do enough."

Article by Shaman Crowe, Reporter