There likely aren’t many who are sad to see 2020 come to a close. It’s been a year unlike any other not just in our horticulture sector, but indeed across agriculture, across Canada and around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown unusually difficult challenges our way and I doubt any of us will ever forget what we went through individually on our own farms this year and collectively as a sector.
And yet, our entire industry rose to the challenge and I’m extremely proud of what Ontario’s fruit and vegetable growers were able to accomplish this year.
It was not an ideal year for all edible horticulture sectors with some taking larger hits than others, and although it might have been an easier choice to sit this year out or turn to some alternative crops, growers stepped up and we were able to keep shelves filled and consumers well stocked with local produce.
Staying operational under COVID-19 this year meant additional costs for PPE, reconfiguring living and working spaces to ensure physical distancing, rethinking how pretty much every task on a farm can be done safely to minimize the risk of illness, dealing with quarantining incoming workers and how to react to worker shortages, and often adjusting on the fly to new rules, regulations and requirements.
And that’s on top of the “regular” stresses of the season that we all face, such as weather, labour and marketing challenges - to name just a few.
And that brings me to the role of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA).
If ever there was a year that has proven how vital agricultural and commodity organizations can be to farming operations, this was it.
I’m incredibly proud of the staff and board team at this organization and all the hard work that went into - and continues to go into - working with government to ensure the grower voice is heard when critical decisions are being made.
The COVID-19 pandemic became very real for all of us with the border closure announcement in March and the looming spectre of a growing season without the foreign workers so many of us depend on.
Thanks to the leadership of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and OFVGA, and the support of other groups including Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Canadian Horticultural Council, FARMS and Farm & Food Care Ontario, we were successful in being able to have seasonal workers come to Canada this year.
Early on, we developed an inventory of needs for our sector and the supports that could help take the pressure off in some of those areas. We weren’t successful with all of our asks, but both levels of government have provided varying degrees of support for growers, which has been appreciated.
We worked closely with government to secure federal and provincial cost-share funds to help growers offset additional costs for PPE, quarantines, and other COVID-related expenditures.
Both the provincial and federal governments agreed to enhance crop insurance coverage this year to include labour shortages resulting from the pandemic, and the provincial government increased funding for Ontario’s Risk Management Program, which includes our Self-Directed Risk Management program.
OFVGA took an active role in the distribution of information to growers through regular email updates, a dedicated section on our website, and webinars to help explain and demystify new rules and how to navigate them.
An added stressor this year was the incredible activist, government and media scrutiny on our sector with respect to seasonal workers. Together with our member organizations and Farm & Food Care Ontario, we wrote editorials, submitted grower profiles, bought ad space and responded to countless media requests to ensure our side of the story was also part of the greater narrative around seasonal workers.
Harvest is pretty much wrapped up for this season, and we’re looking ahead to 2021 and beyond. We know we face the prospect of changes to our foreign worker programs, and we continue to be at the table to make sure grower needs are represented.
The global political and trade environment is as volatile as it has ever been, and we’re pushing for financial and regulatory supports to help keep growers competitive. As COVID-19 has shown us, the value of domestic food security cannot be overestimated, and we will continue to do our utmost to ensure the ongoing viability of our sector.
To each and every one of you, thank you for the part you’ve played in helping Ontario’s fruit and vegetable industry come through this unprecedented year. I wish you all the best for the holiday season, and a healthy, happy - and less tumultuous! - new year.