Eastern Ontario farmers were inundated July 30-31, not with the torrential rains they were hoping for, but with political attention from both the provincial Liberal government and the Progressive Conservative Opposition.
When the political deluge was all over, farmers had been told by OMAFRA Minister Ted McMeekin heíd requested that his federal counterpart fire up the existing AgriRecovery relief framework in light of drought conditions through much of the region.
The federal level has 45 days to formally respond to the request. Based on federal response to an earlier decision to activate AgriRecovery for Ontario apple producers decimated by an early thaw followed by a frost, McMeekin expects full cooperation on the broader request.
AgriRecovery is a rapid response disaster framework that provides relief to producers affected by droughts, flooding, hailstorms, ice storms, or wildfires.
The minister also urged the senior government to accelerate tax relief for livestock producers through identification of "prescribed drought regions". Once an area has received the designation, farmers are permitted to defer a portion of sale proceeds to a future tax year.
Ontario is pledging that farmers in such regions will be protected from reductions in AgriStability coverage if forced to sell breeding stock due to hay and pasture shortage caused by lack of rain and dry conditions.
AgriStability is a type of insurance that offsets the difference where thereís been a decline in income or an increase in production costs.
McMeekin said he had no trouble identifying much of Eastern Ontario as a drought-affected region. Itís a "tough situation" for many farmers in the area because it can be "heartbreaking" to lose a crop, the minister said. Yet farmers almost by definition "are an optimistic folk" and will soldier on.
Speaking July 31, the minister said that he made the call to seek federal AgriRecovery involvement in consultation with his officials after receiving input from farmers across the province. The decision was first announced July 30 as Opposition agriculture critic Ernie Hardeman toured farms in rural Ottawa and Renfrew calling on the government to take such action.
In Navan and Renfrew, Hardeman accompanied by Progressive Conservative MPPs Lisa MacLeod, Jim McDonell, John Yakabuski, and Jack MacLaren railed against the Liberalsí failure Ė at that point Ė to trigger AgriRecovery.
"We know that some farmers have been forced to write off their crops and are struggling to feed their livestock," Hardeman said.
The former agriculture minister released copies of a letter he sent to McMeekin July 19 asking that the minister outline steps the government would take to assist farmers through the drought. Hardeman said the response was non-committal.
McMeekin used the backdrop of Dwight Fosterís 1,400 beef cattle feedlot at North Gower and Maple Lane Farms at Cobden to fill in local media about AgriRecovery. Foster said there was no reason he knew of that he was asked to host the minister other than he operates a major beef farm in the Ottawa area.
He crops 4,000 acres and indicated that much of it was doing well while some was in distress. As a side issue, Foster noted that birds invading 100 acres of sweet corn is a bigger problem than usual because, with their usual sources of water dried up, theyíre after moisture in the kernels as much as feed.
His nephew Mel said everything from electronic distress calls to guns is being used against them with no lasting results.
As it turned out, a big rig used by the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association to promote corn fed beef at grocery stores was visiting Ottawa. It detoured out to Fosterís to add some sparkle to the photo op and provide sandwiches for hungry news hounds. The impressive city media turnout both for McMeekin and Hardeman made it clear the drought and its effects are seen as a big story.
Some of the reporters wondered why no fresh money was announced now by McMeekin as part of relief measures. But many farmers have made it clear they arenít seeking cash at this time, just the assurance their existing programs will see them through when losses connected to the 2012 growing season become clear.
During a stop at Wyatt McWilliams beef and heavy horse farm at Navan, Hardeman emphasized that many farmers are already supplementing cattle from their hay supply, with insufficient hay coming off this summer to provide for next winter.
Famous for organizing Hay West 10 years ago with his father Willard, a program which delivered Eastern Ontario hay to drought-stricken farmers in Western Canada, McWilliams said he canít rely on pasture to feed his cattle this summer because itís too parched.
Most farmers are reporting a decent first cut of hay, no second cut and are keeping their fingers crossed for a possible third cut. The hay price has skyrocketed, with farmer/auctioneer Preston Cull noting at Hardemanís Renfrew meeting that large square bales that cost $30 last year can be purchased in Quebecís Eastern Townships for $85.
"Itís an ill wind that doesnít blow somebody some good," Hardeman observed, pointing out that some elements of the industry are thriving thanks to drought conditions.
At the Renfrew meeting, Adrian Straathof raised an isolated concern that hasnít been part of the broader drought discussion. With 250 taps in two sugar bushes, Straathof said younger maple trees are really showing the stress which could result in a low sap yield and a decline in syrup production next spring.
Some 50 farmers who gathered at Renfrew Armouries were urged to be persistent in documenting their difficulties and in keeping numbers so that when the time comes to make a case for early or enhanced drought coverage, they can prove it.