Ontario agriculture minister to talk pink corn mould with industry leaders

Ontario's Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is meeting with grain industry leaders in Toronto today to talk about vomitoxin, a pink mould that's left many corn crops unmarketable.

Wet growing conditions have left many corn crops contaminated and unmarketable

Perth county farmer Joanne Foster says the outbreak of vomitoxin has left many producers anxious about a possible loss of income. (Submitted)

Perth County farmer Joanne Foster says she'll be watching her budget closely this winter, after an outbreak of the pink mould, vomitoxin left her uncertain about what her fall corn harvest will be worth.

"It's a potential loss of income... None of us really know for sure what's gonna happen," said Foster, whose crop samples have so far yielded mixed levels of the mould.

Foster's anxiety is familiar to Essex County farmer Ray Simard, who says some corn has been accepted at the grain elevators, while other husks have been rejected for being too mouldy.

"It's kind of on a pins and needles type situation, wondering, 'Are the loads gonna pass or be rejected when you ship 'em?'" said Simard.

"There's relief that we're getting some of the corn off, but there's still variability that's load by load," says Essex County farmer Ray Simard. (Dale Molnard/CBC)

Farmers like Foster and Simard will be top of mind today as Ontario's Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs meets with members of industry in Toronto to discuss possible solutions to the outbreak, which has so far been mainly concentrated in southwestern Ontario.

Agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman was unavailable for an interview Wednesday, but said in an email statement that this season's vomitoxin levels are "concerning" and that the meeting will discuss possible solutions.

"This year was the perfect storm weather wise that vomitoxin, which is a mould in corn, has shown up," said OFA president Keith Currie. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

The distinctively pink mould is the result of wet growing conditions this summer and fall, according to Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie. It's a particular disappointment given that this year's corn yields have been strong, leaving many farmers with a bountiful harvest of corn and nothing to do with it.

Corn for livestock feed can only contain very small amounts of vomitoxin, and Currie said this year's levels are "tremendously" higher than what's considered acceptable.

And while ethanol can still be safely made from corn with vomitoxin, Currie said the process of ethanol production doesn't kill the mould, and leaves contaminated distiller's grain left over. 

Former canola farmer and NDP Deputy Leader John Vanthof added his two cents to the conversation Tuesday, calling on the province to develop a clear plan for dealing with the unmarketable crops as soon as possible.

"This isn't something that farmers have a lot of time to handle, because as the crop comes off the field you need to deal with contaminated crop," said Vanthof in an interview with CBC News. "You can't mix it with other crop, if the elevator refuses truckloads of grain you need to deal with them right away."

The plan so far

To date, about 1,400 producers have reported damages from vomitoxin to Agricorp, the provincial crown corporation that oversees crop insurance.

Agricorp announced Wednesday it would offer producers a "corn salvage" benefit of 79 cents a bushel for crops with vomitoxin levels over five parts per million.

Wet growing conditions have resulted in an outbreak of vomitoxin, particularly in southwestern Ontario. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

"The benefit is designed to help producers cover costs to harvest and then market, use as feed or find an alternative use for damaged corn," Agricorp said in an online news release.

But Markus Haerle, chair of the grain farmers of Ontario,​ said the government may need to step in to a greater degree to compensate for farmers' losses. 

"The farmers need to cover some of their expenses that they're accruing at the moment by harvest," said Haerle, who will attend today's meeting.

"Every time you turn the key on a machine you're burning fuel, you're paying employees and those shortfalls you can only cover when you sell crop."

One possible solution, he said, could see the province tapping into AgriRecovery, a federal-provincial-territorial program that helps producers deal with the income and production losses from natural disasters, including diseases and pests.

Meanwhile, farmers like Joanne Foster are keeping a close eye on their budgets as they await further information. 

"Financially we'd like to know where we're at, if someone's going to make up the difference for what we're going to lose," she said.