‘Essential’ travel rule fuzzy on farmers picking up parts, inputs

U.S. border officers will have final say on Canadian farmers' cross-border business trips

Whether Canadian farmers can continue to pick up machinery parts and other products for their operations in the United States is at the discretion of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

At 11:59 p.m. ET Friday, Canada and the U.S. temporarily restricted non-essential travel between the two nations to try and slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Travellers are no longer permitted to cross the border for recreation and tourism,” an official with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada wrote in an email Tuesday. “To be clear: essential travel will continue unimpeded. Those crossing the border for urgent or essential reasons will not be impacted.”

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The Canadian government considers food production essential.

“Our farmers and food businesses play an essential role in our country’s plan to manage the outbreak of COVID-19,” the official wrote.

However, “admissibility decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis by Border Services officers or Customs and Border Protection officers at each port of entry. Canadian citizens have the right to re-entry during this period of border restrictions and will always be allowed to come home.”

The Canada Border Services Agency has a dedicated phone line (1-800-461-9999) to answer admissibility questions.

Why it matters: Canadian farmers don’t just rely on the U.S. as a market for their production, they also often buy equipment, parts and crop inputs there and often bring them back to Canada themselves.

Many American towns just south of the Canadian border have depots where Canadians who have purchased goods from U.S. suppliers get them delivered for pick up later.

Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) raised the issue of farmers being able to retrieve parts they purchased in the U.S. with the Manitoba government recently, KAP president Bill Campbell said in an interview Tuesday.

“Their response was that it was up to the discretion of the American border agent,” Campbell said. “You could be, prior to this, denied entry (to the U.S.) if a border agent didn’t want to let you through. What their interpretation of an essential service has yet to be clarified or probably even challenged. It is a concern that we have in terms of sourcing parts. I guess we’ll have to take a wait and see approach.

“Some places in the world, there is just no crossing borders no matter what. I would hope our two governments would acknowledge that each country plays for one another, but if this thing (COVID-19) escalates further, God knows where the limitations are on border crossings.”

Meanwhile, the fertilizer and seed industries are emphasizing the need to keep borders open.

Fertilizer Canada is also urging the federal government to designate the entire fertilizer supply chain an essential service, and provide relief to workers who face expiring training certificates, Fertilizer Canada said in a news release Monday.

“The government must ensure that policies will protect our industry workers from any sort of supply chain disruption and to ensure continued movement of product throughout the supply chain,” the release said.

The federal government must maintain Canada’s food supply chains; therefore it should follow the U.S. and draft a list of essential infrastructure workers that could be used by federal, provincial and territorial governments to make decisions, the group said.

“Fertilizer Canada is recommending the list include the entire Canadian fertilizer supply chain, from manufacturing in plants, to transportation, to ag retail locations that allow farmers to receive their goods.

“Additionally, in order to maintain continued operations, individuals who are critical to product manufacturing lines and transportation in person training has been suspended, until a set time after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fertilizer Canada is requesting the government extend the expiry dates of certifications for workers in our industry possess, where it is safe to do so.”

Seed, which is traded globally, is essential to crop production and food security, Canada’s seed sector groups said in a separate release Tuesday.

“We support the recently announced measures by the Canadian government to exempt commercial travel from the Canada-U.S. border closure,” the Canadian Plant Technology Agency, Commercial Seed Analysts Association of Canada, Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, Canadian Seed Institute, CropLife Canada, and Canadian Seed Trade Association said.

“We want to emphasize the vital role that truckers play in delivering seed to farmers, and the importance of ensuring their health and safety… we want to let Canadians know that our industry is committed to providing quality seed to farmers as the first step in the agricultural supply chain.”

— Allan Dawson reports for the Manitoba Co-operator from Miami, Man.

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