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Ask an Expert: COVID-19 Supports for the Organic Sector

in 2020/Ask an Expert/Organic Community/Summer 2020/Tools & Techniques

A Network of Support for BC’s Ag Industry in COVID-19

Karina Sakalauskas

I know the past two months have been a challenge to all. I hope your families and workers are staying healthy and safe at your farms.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak and to respect physical distancing measures, Ministry staff are working remotely but are still available to assist you. We continue to support the sector’s needs by providing services via email, phone, and through virtual meetings whenever possible. As we move on to the next stage of BC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are attempting to regain a sense of normalcy.

During these last two months, the Sector Development Branch at the Ministry, to which regional agrologists and industry specialists such as myself belong, has been reaching out to industry stakeholders and reporting to executives on the impacts experienced by the agriculture sector with regards to COVID-19 containment efforts.

I am in constant contact with COABC and representatives specific to their commodity portfolio such as organic farmers from different areas and from different food and beverage categories (poultry, livestock, dairy, veggies, fruit), organic processors and distributors, the accreditation board of COABC, certification bodies, and inspectors among others.

Some of the current impacts on the organic sector, identified through outreach efforts, are as follows:

  • Revenue losses from closed farmers’ markets, restaurants, and other sales outlets and difficulties in finding new supply routes.
  • Lack of support for small-scale diversified farmers (lack of qualification for support and insurance programs).
  • Lack of capacity for non-profit industry associations to address issues without stable revenues.
  • Delays in audits and inspections, including for organic certification. New growers or those in transition to be certified organic will be most impacted by cancellations or delays.
  • Information technology challenges in conducting remote inspections as well as in the transition to e-commerce by farmers.
  • Labour concerns and difficulty in productivity due to physical distancing measures.
  • Loss of WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) impacts organic farmers, farmers’ markets, and small-scale diversified producers.
  • Shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other supplies.

Throughout the last week of April and first week of May, the Ministry of Agriculture planned a series of meetings for Minister Lana Popham to engage directly with industries of varying commodities and food system groups over a phone call (Phase 1). COABC’s executive director, Eva-Lena Lang, members of the COABC board, and organic farmers were invited to participate in a roundtable on April 30th, 2020.

Some highlights of the topics discussed include: support for certification bodies and COABC, support for small farms and market gardeners, collaboration between the organic sector and the Ministry, access to slaughter and processing capacity, alternative food supply chains, seed production shortages, and infrastructure and postharvest storage facilities for the organic sector. I have followed up with COABC, providing resources and initiatives related to the topics discussed. The Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham is planning to engage with the industry again around June (Phase 2).

During this time of uncertainty, there is an overwhelming amount of information to digest. Here is a summary of the latest activities that the Ministry is conducting in response to COVID-19:

Funding Opportunities

BC Agri-Business Planning Program

The BC Agri-Business Planning Program is now open to support producers and food processors through two streams:

  • COVID-19 Business Recovery Planning to help BC producers and processors develop and implement an immediate and long-term recovery plan.
  • Specialized Business Planning to enable BC producers and processors to make more informed decisions and strengthen their business.

BC Food and Beverage (BCFB) Protecting our People: PPE Access Program

BCFB announced a program to procure and offer PPE for the exclusive benefit of the food production, seafood, and agriculture sectors in BC. Companies needing PPE can purchase through this initiative. BCFB’s goal is to order in large enough quantities to make them more affordable for industry to purchase them.

On-Farm and Post-Farm Food Safety Program (OFFS): COVID-19 funding now available

OFFS is offering funding for protective and safety equipment for the April 2020 to March 2021 fiscal year. Eligible companies can seek funding to acquire PPE and other approved safety supplies for use at their facilities in order to maintain a safe workplace and mitigate the risk of COVID-19. With applications for personal protective equipment funding only, the usually mandatory Good Agricultural Practices assessment requirement is waived.

Funding Updates

Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA)

CEBA has decreased the requirements for a payroll of $20k to make the funds more eligible for sole proprietors (i.e. owner/operators of small farms).

Resources and More

Recommendations for U-Pick, Farm Stands and Agri-tourism

These new documents outline information for U-pick, farm stands, and agri-tourism operators to meet Provincial Health Officer (PHO) orders, notices, and guidance. The information in these documents is meant to complement PHO recommendations.

BC Food Product Notification and Tracking Tool

The Ministry Food Service and Distribution working group has developed a tool to track existing overages and shortages of BC products due to COVID-19, sharing this information with potential markets. If you are experiencing difficulty in finding sales channels for your products or are lacking in inventory, please email me at karina.sakalauskas@gov.bc.ca

BC’s Restart Plan and the Agriculture and Seafood Sector – Important Information

Many sectors, including Agriculture, are encouraged to make plans and establish protocols on how they can operate safely in line with Public Health and Safety Guidelines. WorkSafeBC and the Ministry of Agriculture will work with industry associations to ensure the direction and guidance they provide to their members meets the requirements set out by the Provincial Health Officer. Individual businesses will need to ensure their own plans align with these sectoral plans.

Receiving Temporary Foreign Workers – Provincial Inspections for COVID-19

All temporary foreign workers arriving in BC for seasonal farm work are required to self-isolate in government-managed accommodations for 14 days before being transported to their farm. Host farm operators must ensure a safe workplace and demonstrate proof of an inspection control plan with the Ministry of Agriculture.

Guidelines for Protecting BC Farmers and Farm Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

On-Farm Food Safety and Good Agriculture Practices: COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions

Small Lot Pork Producer Management & Production

BC AGRI, in collaboration with BC Pork, have released a new resource manual titled Small Lot Pork Producer Management & Production. While not related to COVID specifically, it is of special interest as many people are starting to raise their own animals and would like to learn more about best management and recommended animal husbandry practices.

To keep up-to-date on how we are supporting you, I would recommend signing up for our AgriService BC bulletin. Sign up here.

The Ministry of Agriculture maintains a list of resources for businesses, including support for businesses on our website.

As we continue to adjust to the ever-changing social landscape in the face of COVID-19, I would like to say thank you to everyone continuing to work on your farms to support the local organic food sector.

Please feel free to send me your comments, ideas, and questions at karina.sakalauskas@gov.bc.ca

Karina is the Organic Specialist with the BC Ministry of Agriculture.

Feature image credit: Gabriel Jimenez

For BC Fish Harvesters, Sustainability is a Way of Life

in 2020/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2020/Water Management

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson

With a campervan-sized cabin and two children, a family dinner aboard Joel and Melissa Collier’s fishing boat is a lesson in gymnastics. There’s barely room for a plate—never mind elbows and legs—but the Comox-based family wouldn’t have it otherwise.

“Fishermen don’t fish for money,” said Melissa Collier, a swimming scallop, salmon, and prawn fish harvester, and co-owner, with her husband Joel, of West Coast Wild Scallops. “There’s so many other things that draw you here. The idea of providing food for other people. That where you work is the most amazing place in the world. And that you appreciate the animals you’re able to harvest and the environment that you’re able to live in.”

She’s not alone. There are about 5,600 fish harvesters working in BC’s $500 million industry, most of them small-boat harvesters deeply embedded in the socio-economic and cultural fabric of their communities and First Nations. Fishing has sustained Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on this coast for generations, offering food security, employment, and community while fish harvesters’ cultural and ecological knowledge of the BC coast is grounded in their work. Fish are life to coastal communities—sustaining them and their habitat is at the heart of the Colliers’ and other small-scale fish harvesters’ work.

“Fishermen want sustainable fisheries,” said Collier. “We rely on our scientists to define what are unsustainable limits and determine what we can catch. And then we stay within those limits.”

The limits, established by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) annually, are only part of the picture. Harvesters like Collier rely on low-impact fishing techniques and local knowledge to minimize their impact on the marine ecosystems sustaining them. Decisions around where and when to fish within season openings allow them to minimise bycatch, gear loss, or negative impacts on the benthic environment. This is made easier by their smaller vessels (about half of the fishing vessels in BC are under 35 feet while only two percent exceed 80 feet) and low-impact gear, allowing them to attend to highly localized environmental conditions.

Freshly harvested scallops. Credit: Melissa Collier

“I’m beholden to my crew and to my family in terms of how we’re making fishing decisions,” explained Guy Johnston, a small-scale salmon and prawn harvester based in the Cowichan Valley, on Vancouver Island. “In a big industrial operation, you’re gonna be forced to keep going even if you’ve got a lot of bycatch or if you’re hurting the ecosystem.”

The combination of personal responsibility and an effective management structure has made BC’s fisheries among the world’s most ecologically well-managed. They are not, however, sustainable, as minimal consideration is given to coastal communities’ socio-economic health, cultural well-being, food security, and resilience in the face of crises. A decades-long focus on narrow ecological and economic targets by DFO—as opposed to focusing on a holistic sustainability grounded in ecological and human well-being—has increased corporate and foreign ownership, prioritized export markets, and pushed many small-scale harvesters out of the industry entirely. Collier and Johnston are exceptions and many of their friends and fellow harvesters operate under direct or indirect corporate control.

That’s because most BC fisheries are managed through an unregulated market for licences and individual transferrable quotas (ITQs) where anyone, including speculative investors and multinational corporations, can own access rights to BC fisheries. Access to fish—once a key source of food, cultural cohesion, and socio-economic well-being in coastal BC—has been transformed into a global commodity. These owners will then lease their quota and licences, often worth hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, to fish harvesters before the season for an upfront price. Lease fees can reach up to 85 percent of the estimated value of the fish, leaving fish harvesters struggling financially, unable to cover basic operating costs and to reinvest in their communities after paying them. Large factory boats, usually owned by corporations or wealthy individuals—which can stay at sea longer, harvest more efficiently, and have a far greater ecological footprint than smaller operators like Johnston or the Colliers—are prioritized in this system.

Food security in BC’s coastal communities and First Nations has also been negatively impacted. Geared to maximise profits instead of considering the overall well-being of the province’s coastal regions, the industry has largely focused on serving higher-value international markets in the United States, Asia, and Europe. The result: About 85 percent of the seafood harvested in Canada is exported, while Canadians import close to 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the country.

Without access to the full value of the fish they catch—whether that value is generated by selling to global markets or more locally—many fish harvesters are prevented from reinvesting in their crews, families, and adjacent communities, while fewer young people can enter the industry. This lack of local investment is felt throughout coastal communities, both by industry-specific trades like boatbuilding, and further afield in supermarkets, farmer’s markets, and other areas of regional economic activity. Nor is it limited to fish harvesters’ incomes, but also impacts their communities’ health and ability to sustain intergenerational knowledge, local stewardship initiatives, and traditional marine knowledge, cultures, and ecosystem well-being.

“Fisheries are not only about employment but also about [a] sense of identity, belonging, culture, and much more,” notes a 2017 report by the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation and Ecotrust Canada on the issue, Just Transitions, Just Transactions: Towards a Truly Sustainable Fisheries in BC. “The decline of wellbeing in BC communities historically based on fishing is well-documented, with increased unemployment and drug use, loss of infrastructure and youth retention, as well as increased youth delinquency and suicide.”

Still, there are glimmers of hope. In May 2019 the federal Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans recommended significant overhauls to BC’s fisheries policy regime that would prioritize local investments and sustaining the industry’s cultural and socio-economic importance. Last year, many of the key ideas explored in that report started the process of being made into law, but only for East Coast fish harvesters. These overhauls would prioritize a holistic approach to sustainable management that balances healthy marine ecosystems, economic demands, and thriving, resilient communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also significantly increased British Columbians’ interest in purchasing their food locally. Johnston, who runs a community-supported fishery (CSF), said he has seen significant public interest in his program, echoing the experiences of other small-scale harvesters who do direct sales or CSFs. The Colliers are also looking to increase the number of British Columbians who can buy their wild scallops, prawns, and salmon.

“My husband is a fourth-generation fisherman,” says Collier. “We want to be able to fish every year. We want our children to be able to fish, and we will do everything we can to make that possible.”

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson is the communications manager for the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, a BC-based NGO which advocates for a future of abundant, sustainable fisheries, and healthy ecosystems that support thriving communities in B.C.

Feature image: Prawn harvest. Credit: Melissa Collier

COVID-19 Workplace Safety

in 2020/Grow Organic/Marketing/Organic Community/Organic Standards/Standards Updates/Summer 2020/Tools & Techniques

Wendy Bennett – Executive Director, AgSafe BC

It’s fair to say that there isn’t one farmer in British Columbia who has experienced anything like what we are going through right now with the COVID-19 outbreak. The invasive spread of the virus has forced most businesses to suspend or alter operations.

In BC, food and agriculture providers are designated essential services and are allowed to continue operating under strict COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

Agricultural producers are pretty diligent about safety on their farms. They have safety policies and plans to keep their workers, families, and themselves safe. But 2020 has not been business as usual as farmers have had to adapt to the added challenge of COVID-19.

The BC Centre for Disease Control has identified important actions that we all can do to help impede the spread of COVID-19—physical distancing, thorough hand washing, and wearing a covering over the mouth and nose (e.g. non-surgical mask or shield) when physical distancing is not possible. Implementing and enforcing these practices in a workplace is not easy.

AgSafe is BC’s non-profit health and safety association for agricultural producers, and works with farmers and ranchers to help them develop and implement robust workplace health and safety systems.

In response to COVID-19, AgSafe has developed a large library of health and safety resources and materials designed specifically for the agriculture industry. The resources reflect industry requirements and range from best practices and employer protocols to checklists and signs in multiple languages.

COVID-19 Resources:

Employer Protocols & Procedures: A collection of information and document templates for on-site prevention, exposure control planning, protocols and risk assessments, safety notices, and health assessments.

Risk Assessment: WorkSafeBC expects every employer to conduct a workplace COVID-19-specific risk assessment. A Risk Assessments & Infection Prevention & Control Protocols document is available for employers to download in PDF and Word formats.

Temporary Foreign Workers: Employers can download a TFW Application Checklist and supporting documents, and many of the COVID-19 documents and signs have been translated into Spanish, French, and Punjabi to help employers communicate safety protocols and practices.

Signage: Bilingual versions of hand washing and physical distancing signs in English-Punjabi and English-Spanish can be downloaded for printing.

New Worker Orientation Video: One of AgSafe’s most popular resources, the New Worker Orientation video, has been updated and translated into Spanish. This short video can be included in new and young worker orientations. Supporting booklets and checklists can be requested from the AgSafe office as well as downloaded from the website.

Mental Health: The impact of the outbreak on the industry adds another layer of stress. Looking after our mental health is as important as looking after our physical health. Links to local, provincial, and national mental health organizations are included in the COVID-19 resources.

Certificate of Recognition: For employers working on their Certificate of Recognition safety certification or re-certification, all program related activities and audits must follow the COVID-19 safety and hygiene practices outlined by public health agencies. This is outlined in AgSafe’s COVID-19 information.

AgSafe is monitoring the situation very closely and actively working with other health and safety associations, industry, and government to keep information accurate and up-to-date.

If you are an agricultural employer in BC you can access AgSafe’s health and safety services in several ways:

Additional Resources:

BC Ministry of Agriculture


Government of British Columbia

Photos of BC organic farmers adapting to new workplace and consumer safety standards – thanks to everyone who shared your photos!

Packing greens with appropriate PPE at ALM Farm in Sooke, BC. Credit: ALM Farm.
Planting future pickles the safe way in an enclosed space at Hope Farm Organics. Credit: Hope Farm Organics
Merville Organics keeps food and cash separate with two tables. Credit: Mariette Sluyter.
Fresh Valley Farms repurposed hand wash station supplies from the farm to reduce exposure for themselves and consumers at farmers’ markets. Credit: Fresh Valley Farms
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