Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay area farmers dealing with losses and delays due to cold, snowy spring

Some farmers in Thunder Bay say this year’s extra long stretch of winter weather has delayed some planting, cost them money and created several hassles — but they’re used to the challenges of farming in the north and are more annoyed or impatient than panicked. 

Farmers report later planting, higher heating costs and greenhouses crushed under snow

The pasture at Stanley Hill Bison is flooded and snowy, making it almost impossible to drive a vehicle on it. (Submitted by Ashley Janssens)

Some farmers in the Thunder Bay area say this year's extra long stretch of winter weather has delayed some planting, cost them money and created several hassles — but they're used to the challenges of farming in northwestern Ontario and are more annoyed or impatient than panicked. 

"I'm really trying to stay patient and to stay calm because there's no way that I can control this situation," said Marcelle Paulin, the co-owner of Sleepy G Farm in Pass Lake, Ont, east of Thunder Bay.

"But definitely things are slow."

Food security has been top-of-mind for many people over the past two years, as COVID-19 has contributed to supply chain problems. More recently, the invasion of Ukraine has threatened exports of corn, grain and sunflower oil. The threat of climate change, which has cut crop yields, is also present.

Canadian wheat production dropped more than 38 per cent last year due mainly to drought conditions on the prairies, according to Statistics Canada.  Canola production was down around 35 per cent.

Losses of up to $8K

The owners of Stanley Hill Bison grow grain to produce hay to feed their animals, but they haven't been able to plant it yet because of the snow and moisture, said Ashley Janssens, the co-owner of the farm. Last year, it was already in the ground at this time. 

"We're already struggling for feed from the drought [last year] to begin with. And now I feel like we were kind of falling behind again," she said. 

The wet, snowy conditions also made it impossible to get some of their vehicles into the pasture to round up animals for slaughter, Janssens said.

As well, an accumulation of ice in their handling facility meant they missed a March processing date at the local abattoir. 

"One of the animals is probably about $4,000. So that day, it was between $7,000 and $8,000 that we lost," she said. "And we can't really make up for the year." 

The Janssens were able to deliver animals to the abattoir for their subsequent date on April 26, she added. 

Kevin Belluz, co-owner of Belluz Farms, said the abundance of precipitation is a "mixed blessing" because it will replenish the groundwater and ponds that were depleted during last year's dry conditions. 

Kevin Belluz of Belluz Farms said the snow and rain will replenish the ground water after last year's dry season, but it's "getting a little bit old now." (Gord Ellis/CBC)

There's a limited number of crops that can be planted early in the year in this region, Belluz said, so he wasn't going to worry about the growing season unless there was still snow in the ground after the first week of May.

But the accumulation of white stuff has interfered with preparations for the season, he added, such as performing maintenance on farm equipment, which was still snowed-in late last week.

"It's yeah, getting a little bit old now," he said. 

Paulin, who is used to late planting seasons because of her location near Lake Superior, said she's been unable to plant in her unheated enclosures because they've been flooded and surrounded by snow. 

Marcelle Paulin of Sleepy G Farm, with son Lowell, said she's trying to stay calm and notice signs of spring. (Submitted by Marcelle Paulin)

However, her biggest concern is for field crops that take longer to mature, such as pumpkins and winter squash, she said. 

"What we are doing is seeding in the greenhouse," she said, "and heating the greenhouses has not been a delight. With the wind and the snow and everything, it's tough to keep the place at a decent temperature."

'This is Thunder Bay'

DeBruin's Greenhouses has seen gas bills rise from about $3,000 a month last year to about $4,500 per month this year because of the colder temperatures, owner Arjen DeBruin said.

But, he said, "Our price point of our product is such that we can withstand the cold winter like this." 

Arjen Debruin, left, of Debruin's Greenhouses said his farm can survive the higher costs of a cold winter because his locally-grown produce commands a higher price than it would in southern Ontario. (Debruin's Greenhouses/Facebook)

"Do we like to pay these big bills to the gas companies? No," he added. "This is the opposite of what we saw last year. But you know what? This is Thunder Bay." 

Pitch Creek Farm switched to wood heat this year, which results in lower costs, but its greenhouses took a different kind of hit from the winter weather when two unheated structures were crushed under the snow. 

"We're trying to take some of the stuff that was supposed to be planted in those this week and sort of plant them around the bottom of the tomato plants that we have going in our big heated tunnels," said owner-operator Brandon Harris. 

That may prevent the farm from taking much of a loss, he said, but weeding and harvesting around the tomatoes will be "an annoyance." 

Last year the farm was starting to plant crops such as kale outdoors in late April, Harris said. Right now, the fields still have snow on them.

'All part of the farming here in the north'

"So [we're] having to go back to the drawing board and adjust our crop plan a little bit and try and think of some creative solutions."

Farming isn't easy, and dealing with setbacks is "the name of the game," Harris said. 

DeBruin agreed, saying, "that's all part of the farming here in the north." 

Two weeks from now, he'll have forgotten about the problems he's currently struggling with, he said.

"If I don't like this kind of weather I would have to go to where all the other guys are, and then I'd be fighting for a slice of the pie there. So we're OK."

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