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Saskatchewan Election: Connectivity top of mind for province’s producers

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WATCH: While Saskatchewan's agriculture sector hasn't suffered the same way many others have during the pandemic and they do have issues they want addressed – Oct 21, 2020

Lance Walker’s grain elevator, in Borden, Sask., is nearly 80 years old. He said his grandpa helped build it, stacking wooden planks one on top of the other and nailing them down.

He still uses the structure to store his crops and he still uses wooden levers to funnel the grain down the chute.

What has changed is how he connects with his farm, his tools, his family and friends.

This grain elevator, unlike many others across the province, has internet.

FULL COVERAGE: 2020 Saskatchewan Election

Todd Lewis, the president of Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS), said a lack of internet is the single biggest issue facing rural Saskatchewan.

“It’s quickly becoming apparent that, if you don’t have internet or good cell service, that really you’re at a disadvantage,” he said, speaking in Regina.

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“And there will be parts of this province that are basically going to become uninhabitable for a family.”

Lewis, and other producers interested in the subject, are able to focus on long-term development for their industry because Saskatchewan’s agricultural sector was largely unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This year has so far turned out to be fairly normal and fairly decent,” Walker said, speaking about the year COVID-19 shut down most of Canada’s economy.

“And we’re going to be happy for that.”

Walker farms cattle and a variety of crops.

Unlike restaurants, small businesses, meetings, sports events, concerts, gyms, travel and everything else that ground to a halt or closed, Walker’s business was largely unscathed by COVID-19.

“I think we’ve probably spent time contemplating and even possibly worrying about what could happen,” he said.

Read more: Saskatchewan election tracker 2020: Here’s what the parties are promising

“Overall, when I look back at the year, it’s been pretty much status quo for us as farmers.”

“People still need to eat, right?” Lewis said.

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“Especially in Saskatchewan, here we export so much of our product worldwide and people are still eating and still hungry.

Social distancing, Walker and Lewis observed, was already common for the province’s producers. The pandemic did affect beef prices, with COVID-19 outbreaks temporarily closing some abattoirs and creating backlogs, but Lewis says the year was like many others.

“It’s just typical. Agricultural production by definition is cyclical. You’re going to have good years and bad years.”

The price of many crops have actually risen from where they were last year.

Read more: Ridings to watch in the 2020 Saskatchewan election

Richard Gray, the University of Saskatchewan grain policy chair, said COVID-19 partially caused that rise. He said producers shipped more grain because they had less competition from other commodities, the value of which suffered during the pandemic.

“That’s really helped market producers sell a pretty large inventory from last year,” he told Global News.

“And this summer (producers) actually produced another crop that sort of pushes their record in Canada. So it’s been healthy in terms of volume and certainly production.”

Lance Walker’s moisture meter, located in his 80-year-old grain silo. Nathaniel Dove / Global News

Given the agriculture sector’s relative success, Lewis said the industry was looking to the political parties not for crisis management and more for long-term structural boosts to the sector.

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Both the Saskatchewan Party and NDP have pledged to improve rural internet access.

The Sask Party platform doesn’t specifically mention it but former agriculture minister and Wood River MLA candidate David Marit said the party, if re-elected, will continue on with the current plan, which began in 2017.

“SaskTel is working with SARM just on that whole strategy in rolling out the increased internet,” he said, referencing the Crown corporation and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities.

The NDP platform does pledge to implement a Rural Reconnect program, but has no cost associated with it.

NDP agriculture critic and Regina Northeast MLA candidate Yens Pedersen said the funding will come from the SaskBuilds capital fund and will be announced at a later date.

“With us, that service was always going to be delivered through a strong SaskTel,” he said, during a phone interview.

Lewis said both parties seemed focused on urban ridings during the campaign.

Read more: APAS Connectivity Task Force researching internet issues in rural Saskatchewan areas

He also said he’s eager to work with whichever party forms government in order to foster rural development.

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Walker says high-speed internet only came to his farm about two years ago. He said it’s now part of almost everything he does, whether that’s collecting crop data or vehicle maintenance.

Whether it’s connectivity or canola transport, he says he wants the next government to be prepared for whatever else may threaten the economy, now that the country has seen how fragile it is.

“It’s possible anything could come along and be just as disruptive or more disruptive.”

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