The Green Party caucus in the New Brunswick Legislature has released a plan to respond to the effects of COVID-19 interruptions on food security. The party wants the government to take urgent action to ensure the integrity of the province’s food supply this year.
We import most of our food from the US, and the crisis is affecting the supply chain. News stories from the US indicate that the crisis is already closing food production facilities there and threatening the mega-farms that grow much of the country’s food. A plant in Iowa that processes 2 per cent of the US pork supply was shut down as workers became infected with COVID-19.
I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with Aaron Shantz of L’Hirondelle Farm in Sainte-Marie-de-Kent and Edee Klee of New Brunswick Community Harvest Gardens in Fredericton. We were looking at solutions to get more farm labourers in the fields this summer and how to promote this agenda. Edee is working to train new farmers at the Hayes Teaching Farm in Fredericton. Aaron and his family worked with a group of farmers in Kent County to develop the plan that was initially presented to Kevin Arseneau, MLA for Kent North.
The idea they proposed was to have wages subsidized, including through summer jobs programs (some of which have already been cancelled). The largest portion of food cost is the wage (about 60%), so whatever portion of the wage is subsidized, farmers in that group believe they could discount that amount from their food boxes this year. Shantz tells me, “Many people have lost their jobs and the famers that I talked to are looking for ways to support the community.”
To be sure, this year will be one of the most important years since World War II to grow food. MLA Arseneau, a farmer at La coopérative Ferme Terre Partagée, says, “We have a fragile food system in the province, we produce only 3% of what we eat overall. Although we must support all farmers, fishers and harvesters, we must direct our efforts to our weakest links: especially annual fruit and vegetables but also grain, and livestock.”
“The province’s biggest weakness is fresh vegetables and fruits. We import 92% of the vegetables and fruits that the province consumes, much of that from the United States. These are seasonal crops that need to go into the ground very soon, given the window of opportunity is quickly closing. That’s where we need to focus our time and energy right now.”
Proposals put forth by the Green Party to increase food production fall into two sections, the agricultural sector and communities.
Supporting agriculture – stabilize and increase agricultural production:
- Establish a non-partisan task force.
- Introduce a $4 per hour wage premium for agricultural workers.
- Allow people who wish to work on farms, such as retirees, unemployed people, or students to be trained and paid to work on a farm for the summer season without penalty on the benefits received.
- Offer interest-free loans and increase the percentage infrastructure investment.
- Subsidize community supported agriculture baskets (CSAs) for families in need, food banks and community kitchens.
- Ensure a fair price, a plan to buy back the surplus (if necessary) by mandating that our public institutions, supermarkets and distributors buy NB products.
- Recognize farmers’ markets and farm stands in the list of “essential services”.
Victory Gardens – grow food wherever possible:
- Encourage individuals to plant gardens in community gardens and at home and develop materials explaining the specific precautions to be taken in the face of physical and social distancing.
- Develop training videos in partnership with small farms to increase the chance of success for individuals growing their own food.
- Allow front yard vegetable gardens in all municipalities.
- Assist ornamental greenhouses to convert to vegetable production.
- Convert municipal ornamental gardens into market gardening spaces, as much as possible.
I work as a food security policy analyst and spend a lot of time thinking about this. I can say that the proposed points are all positive and proactive measures. It would have been helpful to have a higher rate of wage subsidy, but the wage subsidy combined with infrastructure funding and purchasing supports makes for a well-rounded approach.
The cracks in our food system are showing with the COVID-19 outbreak but they have been there for years. We are food insecure in many ways: trade wars, border closings, a weak dollar, pest and blight outbreaks and extreme weather events are all very real concerns.
In January 2017, the Mayor of Tracadie declared a State of Emergency after the Acadian Peninsula was hit with a debilitating ice storm. About 20,000 NB Power customers lost their power and food bank requests at local food bank, Au Rayon d’Espoir, went from 40 to 140 per day.
Farmers in New Brunswick need our help now to ensure they can produce the food we will need. It is critical for people to understand that each day that goes by, precious planting time is lost. Seeds need to germinate and grow to size for field planting if we want anything other than root vegetables in our diet. We don’t have a particularly long growing season in New Brunswick, so delaying planting by even two weeks makes for an unreliable harvest.
The general public tends to under estimate the complications of both farming and running a small business. Farmers have a very tight schedule to follow. We might think they are taking a break in January, but really, they are developing crop plans for the coming season, calculating seed weights and putting in bulk seed orders. Some farmers are growing as early as February and March in tunnels and greenhouses. Crops started in greenhouses need to be watered twice daily. Farmers can’t just double production without a labour force to support them.
If a farmer takes on too much production and gets behind schedule, transplants will be root-bound, dry and unhealthy before they ever get planted. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing crops that have already had so much energy put into them. From a small business point of view, many farmers don’t have funds at their disposal pay for the up-front costs of labour and infrastructure expansion. A farmer could start paying for labour in April but not see much in the way of profits until July, and even then, it is only early season crops selling until late August or early September.
In recent weeks the provincial organization and food security network Food for All has acted quickly to convene province-wide conference calls. The calls provide updates on food security concerns and responses during the COVID-19 outbreak. Around 130 individuals and groups have been sharing information on responses which include: food deliveries, community gardens, food banks and taking school lunch programs door-to-door. The level of creativity and quick thinking in this crisis has been impressive. I feel very proud of the community resources and volunteers we have in this province. Food for All has also started a working group, which I sit on, to determine how to safely operate community gardens this summer.
Across Canada, provincial governments have taken opposing approaches to community gardens during the pandemic. In late March, community gardens were shut down for the coming season in Ontario. The government treated these food-producing spaces as “recreational” sites. This has caused a wave of upset from dedicated gardeners and food security groups. In contrast, the Government of British Columbia recently declared that community gardens and other food production services are “essential to the functioning of society, and that they must remain open provided they can ensure the safety of people using them.”
The Vermont Community Garden Network was quick to put out some excellent health and safety guidelines and we are using those as a tool to build up a New Brunswick specific set of safety protocols. The Food for All working group is quickly pulling together resources together in the hopes of keeping gardeners safe and keep gardens open.
If you believe this issue is important, you could write your MLA to make your concerns about food security heard. You can find your MLA’s contact information here.
Amy Floyd lives in Taymouth, New Brunswick and works as a Senior Food Security Policy Analyst with the RAVEN Project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) on the Growing a Better Future Project. Amy runs the Permaculture Atlantic Network, is a dedicated gardener, and an advocate for rural issues.