Ontario farm businesses working to adapt to a new reality

by Peggy Brekveld,

Vice President, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

If there is one thing that has remained constant throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that farmers are experts at adapting to evolving situations and persevering through uncertainty. The resiliency of Ontario farmers to move forward and conduct business in a crisis environment was exemplified in the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s (OFA) latest survey results.

As part of our continued efforts to monitor and gauge the impact of this public health crisis on Ontario farm families and the agri-food sector, OFA has conducted a trio of surveys, beginning with a benchmarking assessment in March followed by a phase two study in April. Earlier this month, OFA launched its phase three survey resulting in 620 member responses.

Despite the endless list of challenges and disruptions caused by COVID-19, farmers have been adapting their businesses to survive in a new reality. The latest results revealed that farmers have progressed past anticipating changes to their businesses and finances and are now experiencing these effects firsthand. The survey showed that 80 percent of members have experienced a change in their operations. The financial impact continues to rank as the top concern for members with 88 percent indicating that their farm businesses have suffered negative financial impacts. Other top concerns included a reduction in consumer spending, the potential of a global recession, trade issues and supply chain disruptions.

Farm businesses are working tirelessly to manage their operations through financial losses. The survey shows that 61 percent have experienced lost revenue and consumer spending, 57 percent are facing reduced cashflow and unable to conduct business as usual, 30 percent do not have the ability to expand their operations and 16 percent are facing financial struggles that will prevent them from paying their bills.

In terms of farm operations having the ability to return to business as usual if the pandemic were to end today, 62 percent of members reported that it would take more than three months, which has significantly increased when compared to 41 percent in April and 22 percent in March.

Added to the phase three survey were questions aimed as assessing the stress and concern of farmers related to their mental health and well-being. Results have shown that two-thirds of farmers indicated they were experiencing more stress and concern about their mental health due to COVID-19. Many farmers are taking steps to cope with the stress as 36 percent of respondents indicated that they’ve reached out to family and friends, 33 percent have taken short breaks and 7 percent have taken steps to seek professional help.

The food supply chain has dealt with its share of disruptions through these unpredictable and uncertain times, including surplus products, reduced markets, meat processing plant closures and loss of contracts. In the survey, many members expressed concerns over shipping livestock to processing facilities, followed by the shipment of finished products and grain. Members also indicated significant impacts on the equine industry, maple syrup and honey sales, mushroom sales, loss of farmers’ market access and on-farm sales.

Access to valuable information has become increasingly important to ensure Ontario farmers have the tools and resources they need to be successful during the pandemic. The survey data shows that two-thirds of farmers utilize websites for finding information, while 63 percent find information through media channels such as TV, radio and podcasts and 30% of respondents connect with staff and specialists to get the latest updates.

The phase three results also revealed that 42 percent of members designated the OFA website as the most helpful resource for farm businesses to cope with COVID-19. This was followed by government websites, services providers such as crop advisors and veterinarians, and commodity organization sites.

OFA is appreciative of all members who provided their input and feedback as we recognize this survey comes in the midst of a busy spring planting season. We can assure farmers across the province these results have helped us to better understand the issues and will continue to guide our responses as we support our members and the industry through this crisis.

It’s been a long road for everyone as we adapt to a new reality, but we thank you, for continuing to produce food for our province and the world. Stay strong. Stay safe.

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