Manitoba

Small-scale Manitoba farmers fight for crop insurance after year of tough weather

Smaller farms in Manitoba are struggling after a year of tough weather, especially October's snowstorm. The difference between those farms and large-scale industry farms? Insurance.

Minimum-acre rules mean some small vegetable farms aren't eligible for coverage through Crown corporation

Bruce Berry shows how much taller his Swiss chard would be if the snowfall hadn't flattened his crop. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Bruce Berry squats down in a quarter-acre plot of land behind his house, right next to a row of green and purple plants. He raises his hand just above where the plants end, to show how tall they should be at this point.

"We've lost probably two weeks of growth with them. They would already be up another four inches, I would say, at this point, which is more harvest-size," he said.

Berry's farm — Almost Urban Vegetables in Winnipeg's southern St. Norbert neighbourhood — was hit by the snowstorm earlier this month, just like hundreds of others across Manitoba.

He estimates a 30 to 40 per cent yield loss of his Swiss chard due to heavy snow. He had to stop offering his food box service a month early because he didn't have enough produce left, and he still has potatoes in the ground that he now has to hand-pick out of the wet, hard mud.

Berry uses plastic hoops and material to cover his small crops late in the fall. Heavy snow broke most of the hoops and flattened the produce underneath. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Due to a cold spring, a drought-like summer and a wet, snowy fall, similar stories are unfolding on farms around the province. But unlike large-scale operations with thousands of hectares, Berry's farm isn't insured.

It's not because he loves the risk of uninsured farming in wild-weather Manitoba. It's because there are no crop insurance options available to him, or other small-scale farmers like him in the province.

Minimums for Manitoba crop insurance

Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) is a Crown corporation that works with farmers to insure their crops.

To qualify for MASC's vegetable insurance program, a proudcer must have three acres (1.2 hectares) of the same crop. Otherwise, there are no insurance programs available.

"Most of my stuff would be well under that" threshold, said Berry. 

His three-acre farm grows about 40 different vegetables and herbs, all directly sold to customers through community-supported agriculture boxes or farmers markets.

Berry is a member of Direct Farm Manitoba, an association of more than 80 small-scale, ecological farmers. Some members, he said, have had a "complete wipeout" of their crops.

Berry estimates his own financial loss will be thousands of dollars.

"When your margins are extremely thin already to begin with, that matters and that counts."

A worker clears away plastic hoops that were broken during October's snowstorm. The protective hoops collapsed, flattening Bruce Berry's Swiss chard crop. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

He and other members of Direct Farm met with former Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler (who was replaced by Blaine Pedersen in Wednesday's cabinet shuffle) on Tuesday to try to start a conversation about the insurance process.

"This is a sector of farming in Manitoba that is basically not being supported by that program. Maybe we can do something to better that," Berry said.

"Let's have that discussion and find out what can we do with it. Maybe not making an entirely new model, but perhaps the existing one can be adjusted."

Pressure on for farmers

A spokesperson for MASC said the corporation consults annually with groups like the Vegetable Growers Association of Manitoba on issues likes this.

"We set our priorities based on the direction they give us," he said.

The deadline for claims to MASC for farmers who do have insurance is Nov. 30. Because of that, the corporation has no information yet on how many farmers have made a claim after the tough season.

"We know it's a lot, but the exact numbers I don't have," the spokesperson said.

Berry said he and other small-scale farmers are feeling the pressure of winter. He, his wife and their one employee still have to plant fall garlic, take out the irrigation tools and prep the fields for spring.

"The list is just extra, super-long now of things that you would like to get done, so you have to triage, and cut away things that are less essential," he said. 

"We'd obviously like to do most of that work before the sleet starts going sideways, and so it just means more work outside when the sleet is going sideways."

Minimum-acre rules mean some small vegetable farms aren't eligible for coverage through Crown corporation. 2:14

About the Author

Sam Samson

Journalist

Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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