Central Alberta farmers hit by hailstorm ask for fruit and vegetable crop insurance
While grain crops are covered under insurance, market crops in Alberta aren't
When a hailstorm bludgeoned through central Alberta on Aug. 1, vehicles on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway were heavily damaged by record-breaking hailstones — and so were grain, fruit and vegetable crops in the area.
Leona Staples, co-owner of The Jungle Farm, said she was relieved to find that there wasn't as much damage to her crops as she expected after the hailstorm that shut down the QEII.
But two hours later, another storm came through the farm, 10 kilometres north of Innisfail, Alta., and ripped through hundreds of acres of crops.
"It stripped all the grain off of the grain crop. It cut up all of the vegetables, all the strawberries, took up all the flowers," said Staples.
This most recent storm came less than a month after The Jungle Farm was hit by what Staples says is the worst storm the farm has faced in 25 years.
While her grain crops are covered under insurance, Staples says the two storms could impact her famous strawberry farms for up to two years, and her family is left with no support to deal with it.
Unlike grain crops, farmers say most market crops — such as fruits and vegetables — are ineligible for hail insurance under the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation in Alberta.
Staples says no market crops in central Alberta are covered under insurance, while some in southern Alberta have certain acreage in which they would be eligible. Strawberries, however, are ineligible everywhere.
"There is no risk mitigation. There is no option for us at the central border to have something to support us in a year of disaster. And that seems wrong," said Staples.
"It's no different than a grain in the sense that it is food to feed people, yet it is something that has not been made a priority."
AFSC says there are hail insurance options for market crops, but farmers are either unaware of them or refuse to take them because they aren't as affordable as grain crop insurance.
Nonetheless, Staples and other farmers are calling on the AFSC and provincial and federal governments to extend crop insurance coverage and create a risk mitigation program for farmers.
Farmers facing more hailstorms this year
Steel Pony Farm was also devastated by the hailstorm in July. Owner Mike Kozlowski says he and his wife were out camping, but a staff member who was at the farm said "grape-sized hail" was hitting the crops for more than 20 minutes.
He says this is an especially bad year for hailstorms.
"We've had lots of hail before. There's obviously hail coming through, but never anything quite like that," said Kozlowski. "We've been recovering ever since."
His farm grows about 30 different vegetable crops, eight acres each. None of them are covered under straight hail insurance.
Kozlowski says he reached out to an insurance company years ago for quotes, and he was told he needs to have a minimum of 30 acres of a single crop to qualify for hail insurance.
Recently, he was told that he would quality for specialty insurance with high premiums, which would cost him $15,000 to $20,000 each year.
"This is just a small family farm. That would be a huge percentage of net profit margin."
He says he wants to know why the farmer across the road growing grains like canola or barley can have his hail insurance subsidized by the government, but his crops aren't.
"When his crops are devastated, it's just as much of a financial burden to his family as it is to mine," said Kozlowski. "It's not like just because I'm on eight acres, I'm less valuable."
"If we got our garden wiped out by hail, that's my livelihood. It's not like I'm a hobby farmer."
The need for risk mitigation programs
Staples says she and other farmers have been asking for a risk mitigation program in Alberta for fruit and vegetables for years. They're also asking the provincial and federal government to extend crop insurance so all horticulture crops can be included.
Rod Bradshaw, owner of Beck Farms, says what happened to The Jungle Farm is devastating. Half of his crops were impacted by a storm in June, but they were insured.
He says the industry has changed over the years and resources should shift to reflect that.
"The biggest thing is that there needs to be tools out there and everybody needs to have access to equal treatment."
He says if something is created, it needs to be sustainable — more than just a grant.
Earlier this week, Staples spoke with Nate Horner, Alberta's minister of agriculture, forestry and rural economic development.
She says he has committed for his team to meet with AFSC in September to better understand how they can support the industry and help it grow.
In a statement to CBC News, Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development said they're in regular contact with agricultural organizations and stakeholders so they can stay updated on what's happening in the community.
They're also working with AFSC, and are committed to strengthening business risk management programs for the agricultural sector.
"Alberta's government recognizes how hard our farming community works to put safe, nutritious food on tables in our province and around the globe. Farmers face a variety of challenges every year, and the past few growing seasons are no exception," said the statement.
AFSC told CBC News that market garden crops are eligible for straight hail insurance if they're between one and 30 acres in size and include three or more crops. Those crops include sugar beets, garlic, potatoes and other vegetables.
But Jesse Cole, AFSC's manager of insurance products and product innovation, says that type of hail insurance is extremely expensive, and some farmers may not qualify due to the specific eligibility.
AFSC offers other types of hail insurance that are cost shared — meaning the provincial and federal government pays for some of the premium — but are geared toward larger commercial grain and oilseed operations.
"It feels like there's two groups here — the group that doesn't know it exists, number one… and the second group might be the ones that actually know it exists and may not take it because it isn't cost shared," Cole said.