Ontario agriculture minister asks Ottawa's help with drought relief

Hamilton MPP Ted McMeekin will tour drought-stricken farmlands Tuesday after asking the federal government for financial help.
Ontario's minister of agriculture meets with farmers in Renfrew, Ont. (CBC)

In the past six weeks, Cheryl Berry's farm has seen only a quarter inch of rain.

"That's not a lot," said the owner of Fleetwood Farms, a small family-run operation in Hurley, Ontario.

The Berry's farm is just one in Ontario that could use some relief — more rain and also some funds to conpensate for low yields.

Ontario's minister of agriculture asked Monday for possible federal support to help farmers dealing with drought.

A spokesperson for minister Ted McMeekin confirmed that a letter was sent to the federal ministry of agriculture asking for an AgriRecovery review, an assessment of the current agricultural conditions.

"It's in response to the dry conditions," said ministry spokesperson Mark Cripps.

The federal government has 45 days to complete the assessment. McMeekin will then meet with Gerry Ritz, federal minister of agriculture, to come up with an ad hoc program to assist farmers.

"AgriRecovery is meant to fill the gaps," said Cripps. "It's a last resort option for a situation like this."

What an ad hoc program might look like depends on what the assessment finds. Cripps said that AgriRecovery was put in place after a series of tornadoes that destroyed apple orchards in Grey-Bruce county. Farmers were given extra funds to help re-plant what they lost, he said.

Berry said any funds would help and would subsidize what she lost this year. She doesn't have insurance for her 50-acre farm because it is too expensive. Her farm is too small  to qualify for the ministry's insurance program.

"[The ministry] tends to look after the bigger farms," Berry said. "Not the small guys."

In the Hamilton area, Cripps said there is still some optimism growers could yield average crop sizes. 

"Rain came [last week] at a critical time for the soybean crop," said Cripps. "Corn still has a chance the yields would be average."

Berry said her corn crop yield is about average, but she is still feeling the loss of her apple crop earlier this year. A flash-freeze in the spring caused about 90 per cent of the apples to spoil. At the Hamilton Farmer's Market on Tuesday, she only had one small basket of apples to sell on her table.

Next door at the market, Gord Williams of the Williams Brothers Farm in Waterdown said his corn is fine, too. It's his tomatoes that are suffering.

"If we get some rain later, the rest will be ok," Williams said.

Drought conditions vary regionally, Cripps said, largely based on the soil. In Hamilton, he said, the soil is clay based and doesn't retain moisture well.

But what farmers are experiencing here is not close to the levels of stress farmers in Eastern Ontario are seeing.

Cripps said the provincial ministry has also asked that the federal government accelerate its assessment of prescribed drought areas, which could help Eastern Ontario farmers.

Drought areas are usually declared in September or October, but Cripps said some areas in Eastern Ontario are so bad, they need assistance now.

If a drought area is declared, livestock farmers won't be penalized financially if they choose to reduce their herd because they can't grow enough crop to feed it.

McMeekin is in the Renfrew, Ontario area today visiting farms affected by drought.