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Ontario looks like two different worlds this growing season

Parts of my son-in-law and daughter’s farm in southwestern Ontario have been underwater this growing season. Spring rains stopped long enough for them to plant, but then the rain started again and never really let up. Between showers, they harvested as much as they could of their wheat crop, but yields were way down and quality was poor.

Meanwhile, parts of Northern Ontario are parched. There, beef and hay production shows promise to expand, owing to the vast areas available for cattle grazing and growing hay. But Rainy River, for example, hasn’t had rain since early May. Normally, it would get about 50 per cent more precipitation than it has now.

Farmers, cattle, and communities are stressed.

In response, on Tuesday, the provincial government kicked in with $2 million in emergency support for northern Ontario beef farmers, through a program called the Northwestern Livestock Emergency Assistance initiative.

It was a swift effort, which bodes well for new minister Lisa Thompson’s effectiveness and understanding of the situation. As well, it speaks to the Beef Farmers of Ontario’s ability to get the minister’s ear and make the drought’s severity clear to her. And it represents an awareness by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture of the farming and ranching status quo throughout the province – the federation got the ball rolling by hosting a meeting last week of farmers in the region, to understand the drought’s severity.

Thompson said the money would be available for emergency feed, water and basic needs. That includes support to purchase and install new fencing, so the cattle can be moved into new grazing area. This management approach is good in the short term, because it’s a new supply of grass for the animals. And in the long run, having cattle on grass gives the land a natural source of manure, to revitalize vegetation.

In drought situations, farmers can’t keep livestock that graze on grass in pastures, like cattle, because the grass runs out. And typically, the cost rises for bringing in hay from other regions to feed them.

As a result, it’s uneconomical to keep the animals on the farm. So, farmers sell them off, leading to a potential glut of meat on the market. That lowers the price farmers get for their animals.

It may temporarily reduce consumers’ cost for beef. But ultimately, this scenario leads to shortages after the selloff, and prices spike.

All this leads to the kind of anxiety and stress on farmers that we’ve been hearing about more and more. They want stability – as much as that’s possible, given the huge number of variables that go into food production – so the prospect of being sunk by weather, markets or politics is not a constant, nagging threat.  

That’s why, as beef farmers lauded the emergency help, they also noted they (and other producers) are anxiously waiting for a new federal-provincial disaster relief framework, called AgriRecovery, to kick in. It is designed to help farmers when assistance is needed beyond current programs.

Farmers have asked for a standard mechanism in place that addresses natural disasters such as droughts, without having to take a political route to the minister and go cap in hand when a new emergency arises.

A steady, predictable emergency funding program has become a particular imperative with the changing climate. Within Ontario alone, we’re now going from a drought in the north to flooding in the south, at the same time. Parts of the Prairies are experiencing the same drought as Northern Ontario. And they’re making a case as well for relief.

We count of farmers for food, and they count on the weather to produce it. Helping them during wild swings in weather makes sense.

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