Relief announced for farmers; more needed

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Relief is on the way for farmers and agricultural producers in the Rainy River District, but there are worries it won’t be enough.

At a press conference held Tuesday afternoon inside the Ontario Crops Research Centre – Emo, formerly the Emo Agricultural Research Station, Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford was joined via Zoom by Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs to announce up to $2-million is being made available for area farmers to address the impacts the drought conditions in the region have had on their ability to grow crops and raise cattle. Dubbed the Northwestern Livestock Emergency Assistance Initiative, the funds will be split into two streams that are aimed at addressing the immediate need for feed in the district, as well as supporting farmers who need to purchase emergency equipment to combat the dry conditions.

Dozens of farmers and agricultural producers from across the district were on hand for the announcement, eager to hear how the provincial government would step in to help with this drought, the likes of which Beef Farmers of Ontario’s (BFO) northern field representative Kim Jo Bliss – also a local farmer, Ontario Crops Research Centre manager and member of the Rainy River District Cattlemen’s Association – said the district hasn’t seen since the late 60s. MPP Rickford noted that the conditions, which have also contributed to a significant number of forest fires in the region, have pushed the agricultural community in the district into the emergency zone.

“In the southern part of the Kenora-Rainy River district we are dealing with a serious drought… as a result of no significant rain activity for several months,” Rickford acknowledged.

“I want to thank you for taking the time, Minister Thompson, to announce the important measures our government is taking to support our northwestern Ontario farmers facing devastating drought conditions. We are so grateful for our northwestern Ontario farmers, and we’ve listened closely to their concerns.”

Minister Thompson explained that through the new program, up to $800,000 is being made available to the BFO to begin work to immediately bring in bales of hay or other feed to help support herds in the region. The funds will help purchase the feed and get it into the hands of farmers in the area who are finding their supply short or non-existent, and who might otherwise be required to sell off large portions of their herd to keep things manageable.

The other stream of the announcement is $1.2-million that will help to support farmers who have had to make emergency purchases to install new fencing to bring their herds to new grazing areas, or to install new water supplies to keep their animals hydrated throughout the heat and drought. The funding from this stream, delivered through AgriCorp, will be retroactively applied to June 14 so that farmers who have already made these kinds of purchases prior to yesterday’s announcement can still benefit from the program and those available dollars.

Thompson also stressed that while this program is working to help farmers who need immediate assistance, there are still plans in motion to bring in more help through joint programs with the federal government.

“While we take these steps to help local farmers on the ground in northwestern Ontario, I can assure you our work is not done,” she said.

“I will continue to work with the provincial and federal government on longer term measures through the AgriRecovery program. I would also like to note that Premier Ford has said time and again that our government is committed to Ontario’s agriculture sector, not just to see it survive, but to grow and thrive.”

Thompson highlighted that the announced funding today was a direct result of the collaborative work of a number of different partners, including the BFO and OMAFRA, working together with local and area farmers to determine the greatest needs and quickest ways they could provide assistance in the district. Many of the facets of the programs were influenced by a virtual meeting that was held with local producers last week.

“We’ve heard loud and clear the dire situation that you’re experiencing in the Rainy River-Kenora district,” Thompson said.

“This announcement would not have happened if it wasn’t for all of you. You are all such great partners in this monumental effort that we have undertaken to get to today, and I very much appreciate that all of you are champions for this sector, and I thank you for that.”

Bliss thanked the ministers on behalf of farmers in the district for their support and help, noting that producers in the area are in “dire need” as the drought shows no sign of being broken in the near future.

“We’re happy that this money is going to help for the immediate interim solution, we know there’s more to come in the future, but we want cattle to have feed and water, and we want cattle to stay in the Rainy River District,” Bliss said.

“Beef Farmers of Ontario have been working extremely hard through the weekend developing a plan on how we can get this feed to Rainy River to help. This affects every farm and farmer in the district. It’s going to happen quickly, so stay tuned.”

However, even with the prospect of immediate help coming to the area, and more in the future, there are worries it won’t be enough to get farmers through the lingering impacts of the drought. During a question period that followed the announcement, one local farmer asked what the government’s response would be for the long-term recovery of the sector in the northwest. That farmer expressed concern that it could take years for crop conditions to recover from the damage done this year, considering the dead hay could not grow again next year, or that pastures will have been strangled out by weed growth. Rickford said that work on those questions and issues was being done in order to determine what the next steps of the government’s involvement would be.

“Today is about the immediacy of the challenge and the opportunity, and we’ll leave it to the good folks at OMAFRA together with the associations who have real expertise to address that,” Rickford said.

A question also arose of where the feed being brought in as part of the initiative would come from, considering that large portions of the country and our closest agricultural neighbours to the south are also grappling with these extreme weather conditions. Bliss answered that BFO has been working to secure hay and feed from other parts of the province who are not experiencing drought conditions, and even as far afield as Atlantic Canada if necessary.

“There’s hay out there, we just have to get it to Rainy River,” she said.

MPP Greg Rickford, centre, was in Emo yesterday to announce a $2-Million emergency fund, which will ship hay to farmers, and offset the cost of water and fencing infrastructure costs. Cattle farmers have been deeply impacted by drought conditions, which have left pastures sparce and dry, and hay fields decimated by insects and weather. Estimates suggest that the local cattle industry could be cut in half due to feed shortages. –Ken Kellar photo

“Within the district there’s also been some talk of alternative crops. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but there is hay out there that we will get to Rainy River.”

Rickford added that there have been talked with local businesses in Emo who have expressed their desire to be part of the solution and of the supply chain that will help to get the necessary feed and crops to area farmers.

Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC) chair Gord Armstrong said the announcement today is good news for area farmers, but that he still has concerns when it comes to seeing farmers through the winter months, a period of time which was not covered by today’s announcement.

“People need to know very soon when the money to help with hay through the winter is coming,” Armstrong said.

“How can they keep a bunch of cattle if they only have enough hay to feed a quarter of their herd? Farmers are talking to me and saying they don’t get no sleep anymore. They’re worried sh*tless about this whole thing.”

To illustrate just how bad things have gotten in the area, Bliss explained that farmers in the area are in dire straights during the drought because of what she called a “perfect storm” of events that have made up most of the growing season so far this year. As much there hasn’t been any rain to keep crops growing, there have been a number of setbacks that have made for a much larger and extremely challenging situation.

“We started off with an early spring,” Bliss said.

“Producers were and got things in the ground fairly early, but it was cold. We had a very late season frost, which we often can experience but it doesn’t usually do the damage that it did. We lost a lot of forage, which is unheard of. We moved from that; anything that survived was attacked by an alfalfa weevil, a pest that will take the leaves off alfalfa and you’re left with stems, which are of very little nutrient value.”

Following an extended period of dryness, hay growth was minimal. Bliss noted that one area producer planted 60 acres of hay and produced only three bales of hay, which she said was “unheard of.” To cap it all off, the heat and dry conditions brought in hordes of grasshoppers, which Bliss said have consumed any forage that was left in the fields.

The conditions are causing farmers and cattle producers to sell off their livestock to keep feed management in check, and while at first glance this might seem like a solution to the problem, Bliss explained that it is a significant blow when the bigger picture is brought into view, and reduces the overall market value of the district by millions of dollars.

“We had around 22,000 animals in the district, so you can safely say 12,000 of that was probably cows,” she said.

“Honestly, at best case scenario, I hope that we still have 6,000 cows here at the end of the year. That is what I hope. That’s about a $10-million loss in cattle sales next year, which will affect the abattoir, sales barn, feed stores, vets and of course, the consumer.”

The knock on effect of selling large numbers of cattle means that the market value could begin to drop, netting farmers less money for their animals. However, it also means that younger producers who want to keep their farms and sell off some animals now could see themselves having to pay three times as much to bring animals back in.

Still, as difficult as the year has proven to be, and as uncertain as the future currently sits, Bliss cheered the funding announcement today, noting that it at least buys producers time to find more feed for their herds, wait out some significant rain, or to hear more from both levels of government about more support that has been promised.

“This is absolutely a great announcement,” she said.

“This $800,000 that’s being directed to the BFO to secure feed and get it in the district, we need that immediately to keep the cattle that are here, here, and we’ll have some time to do some more negotiating going forward.”