THUNDER BAY, Ont. -- Rising food prices have left many Northern consumers grumbling at grocery checkouts, but it’s been no picnic for area farmers.
In the wake of one of the worst summer droughts in memory across Northwestern Ontario, local producers are having to fork out more for essentials like seeds, fuel and feed for their livestock.
“People say the drought is over, but I don’t think it is in terms of the long-term impacts,” Emo-area beef and sheep farmer Kim Jo Bliss said.
Before the drought, farmers may have paid $60-$80 for a bale of hay. That price has soared $150-$175, Bliss said.
“A lot of the cost is transportation,” she said. “You just can’t get on your tractor and go to the next farm to get some hay.”
In the Rainy River district, two-thirds of its cattle population, which once numbered 21,000, had to be sold off because farmers couldn’t afford to feed them when local hay sources literally dried up.
Bliss, who is also a University of Guelph researcher, said the loss of farm animals has a ripple effect, impacting business plans for individual farms, as well as activity at abattoirs and sales barns.
Add inflation into the mix, which does not leave the agricultural sector unscathed, and it’s no wonder that some farmers have been struggling with mental-health issues, said Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) president Peggy Brekveld.
“We’re saying it’s OK to take a pause and ask for help,” said Brekveld, who operates a dairy farm near Murillo.
“Farmers deal with stress from things nobody can control, including (crop) disease and the weather.”
Brekveld said as a farmer, it’s been heart-breaking to watch the severe flooding that has heavily impacted British Columbia’s interior.
“It’s pretty emotional to see entire farms under water, and (farmers) trying to rescue their animals,” she said.
Bliss said animals caught in flood waters are difficult to rescue because they panic and won’t move.
At its recent annual general meeting in Guelph, the OFA established counselling programs to support farmers facing tough times, including one which will allow producers to talk to other farmers who have an understanding of what they’re going through, Brekveld said.
In addition to electing Brekveld to a second term as OFA board president, the association also unveiled its Connecting with Ontarians initiative, encouraging farmers “to tell their stories, bridge the gap between the urban-rural divide and make lasting relationships with consumers.”
Brekveld said prime farm land is disappearing across the province due to the encroachment of urban development at an alarming rate of 175 acres per day.
The association is comprised of 38,000 “farm families.” Recent criticism aimed at agriculture claims that traditional farming methods are wreaking havoc on the environment and contributing to climate change.
Brekveld said crops and wood lots also play a role in capturing carbon, in conjunction with good land-use planning.
“We use science and good practices to grow our food,” she said, noting that one Ontario farm would grow enough good food to feed 120 people.
Off-farm microgreen technology may be growing in popularity, “but you still can’t grow wheat in a container,” Brekveld said.
Fall rain in some parts of the Northwest greened things up a bit, but it remains to be seen if the moisture trickled down to the water table, Brekveld said.
Bliss said she dreads the prospect of a late spring, which could compound the struggle to obtain livestock feed at a reasonable cost.
In July, the provincial government made available $5 million so that regional farmers impacted by the drought could deepen wells and revitalize drinking ponds used by livestock.
Carl Clutchey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal