I'll start off and then pass it over to Janet.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Canadian mushroom industry.
Members of the committee, we come before you today with some grave concerns. It's now the end of May. The pandemic started in March, and we're still fighting for our mushroom farms to get access to a single program. We're very concerned about the lack of funding for farmers to fight COVID-19.
Emergency funding is needed quickly. Since the beginning of March, our farms have incurred major expenses for COVID, in addition to losing major market share, all while being told they are an essential industry. To date, not a penny has been received by our farms.
For the record, our mushroom farms have not benefited from the $50 million for the temporary foreign worker quarantine, because our workers are not seasonal and are already here. When farms expand their housing for social distancing for temporary foreign workers who are already present, these costs are not covered.
There is also the $40 million for food surplus. This does not work, because our production dropped significantly after week four to eliminate throwaways. Also, this program has only been working for oversupply since the end of April.
For food processing, COVID cost relief is prioritizing the meat industry, and the program has not yet rolled out.
We don't care where our funds come from, but as of now, nothing has been received, and we are going to enter into the territory of too little, too late.
Since the start of the pandemic, mushroom farms have implemented costly measures out of their own pockets. Personal protection equipment, Plexiglas dividers, increased housing, increased transportation, staggered isolating shifts and hygiene management supervision are some of the responses that mushroom farms have made. These measures have been estimated to collectively cost over $250,000 a week for the mushroom industry. One mushroom farm spent close to $100,000 in one month, in March, to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is in addition to the lost production that has been and still is being experienced. More details on these costs are in our full report.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture's request for over $2.6 billion included Mushrooms Canada's estimates and was far larger than the government's $252 million.
The AAFC programs do not work for our mushroom farms. They're broken for industries like mushroom farms and greenhouses. An example is AgriStability. The AAFC has made AgriStability irrelevant for our industries because of their intensified operations and expanded production, with major exports to the United States. The government must examine the scale of operations with regard to their $3-million cap. If mushroom farms must experience losses of 30% in order to trigger a payment and the payment is capped at $3 million, the program will not stop farms from going bankrupt.
Additionally, when an operation has experienced a major expansion in its previous year and the calculation for the payment removes the highest year and the lowest, the difference between the new expansion and the payment calculation from the average is too great to help with anything. The government calls this the weighted average. This, too, should be examined and removed.
At the end of the day, when it comes to agriculture during the COVID pandemic, the government has implemented every measure imaginable to reduce the payments to farmers. Caps, weighted averages and margin references are all things to stop or reduce payments. It's not a helping hand; it's a costly hesitation and a disservice to our farmers.
We ask the committee this: What does “essential” mean? It's unfair that this essential industry that Canada cannot live without is dying and struggling and being asked to carry the full burden for three months, while payments have been flowing with record speed to so many others. Although we are also called “essential” by provinces, very few have included agriculture as part of their strategy for essential services; hence, none of the supports are for farm businesses or farm workers.
These are difficult times, and beyond lip service, the government's treatment of essential work leaves one to question if the government thinks that farms and food supply are actually essential.
Our second request is for support from the immigration department for improvements to help skilled and trained agricultural temporary foreign workers who are in Canada, including changes to the agri-food pilot, which was recently announced, that adjust the program to remove the cost for verifying high school diplomas. We aren't saying to remove the requirement for a high school diploma, but rather to remove the payment that needs to be made to a consultant to verify a high school diploma during the COVID pandemic.
Before I pass the microphone to Janet, I should mention that there has been one area where the government has been very responsive: Service Canada's surprise inspections. Although we, too, support the inspections and want all workers to be treated fairly, farmers have reported that documents are being required over long weekends, so farm staff who are under extreme stress every day to keep their farm operational also have to work overtime to comply with the temporary foreign worker requests, again adding costs, adding burden and receiving no help from government to date.
With that, I'll pass it over to Janet.