by SUSAN MANN
Despite historic drought conditions in some parts of Ontario, the province’s crop insurance administrator has only received a typical number of damage reports for this time of year.
Agricorp spokesperson Stephanie Charest says by email they’ve received 4,400 damage reports for all crops across Ontario and that’s about average. However, more than half of the reports are because of lack of rain.
The Niagara and Haldimand regions in southern Ontario are “reporting a bit more damage than we normally see from these areas,” she says.
Damage reports don’t necessarily equal claims because crops can rebound and farmers are still able to harvest a good crop in the fall. Furthermore, many customers call later in the year to report damage when the extent of injury is more easily determined.
That’s why Charest says it’s too soon to tell how many lack of rainfall claims Agricorp will have for this year. “We will know more about claims once the crop is harvested in the fall.”
She adds Agricorp is monitoring the dryness situation across Ontario. “We are aware that some crops are severely impacted by the lack of rainfall and that some producers are assessing their yield potential and options over the next couple of weeks.”
Farmers and commodity group spokespeople agree it has been a very dry growing season so far. Some crops have been affected, while others are doing okay.
The Niagara area is in the middle of an historic drought, says Phil Tregunno, chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers.
“We haven’t had any rain down here, to speak of, for months. We’ve been in a (rainfall) deficit since May,” he says. “We had a couple little shots of a quarter of an inch of rain here and there, but we’ve had to be constantly irrigating,” says the owner of a 700-acre fruit farm.
Normally the region has a two- to three-week dry period during the growing season, but “we’ve never had one that’s lasted numerous months,” he says.
The lack of rain is only one part of the story. The unrelenting heat and dry winds are also exacerbating parched conditions in Ontario.
Tregunno says its has been a challenging growing season for farmers, but the good part is the “fruit tastes fantastic.” The crop is excellent, although with the lack of rain the fruit is bit smaller in size than usual.
As for the trees, some of them are stressed and tree mortality will likely be higher this year compared to other years. Tregunno says it’s too soon to tell how much mortality will increase.
On its website, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says in its drought monitor section much of southern Ontario continued to experience patches of significant drought in July. The federal agriculture department updates its drought monitor every month.
The “majority of the agricultural region was impacted by abnormally dry conditions for yet another month. As of July 24, nearly 55 per cent of the agricultural area in Ontario was impacted by very low to record low precipitation since April 1, affecting more than 17,000 farms and close to 1.5 million cattle,” the posting says.
Certain pockets of Ontario received good precipitation over the past month, such as west of Ottawa and west of London, and that helped alleviate drought conditions. A large pocket surrounding Lake Ontario remained in moderate drought in July, the posting says.
In northern Ontario, some areas had drier conditions in July, while the situation in other areas improved.
Dave Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, says the hardest hit areas for lack of rain include the Niagara Peninsula and the north shore of Lake Ontario, from Cobourg to Cornwall.
Those areas have received less than half of the precipitation that they’d normally get.
However, “the whole province is struggling because we’re seeing very dry conditions,” he explains. Some areas have received rain through thunderstorms “but that’s not the kind or rain you want. You want a slow, percolating kind of rain.”
In the Niagara area “you’d have to go back to the 1920s or 1930s to see drier conditions than what we’ve seen,” he notes.
Kingston-area beef farmer Jeff Peters says the dryness in his area “has a lot of people quite depressed.”
Peters grows grain and hay and has a 30-head herd of beef cattle. He’s also chair of the Pen Farm Herd Co-op, which bought cattle from the federal government prison farms when the government closed them in 2009 and 2011. He has 15 Holstein cows from that purchase on his farm.
In the Kingston area, farmers with straight alfalfa stands had a second cut of their crop, but “no where else have they got a second crop, ” he says.
However, the first cut of hay was “relatively good.”
Peters says he has been feeding hay to his cattle for about a month, and “we’ll probably have to feed right through to next spring. The pastures are 100 per cent done.”
The cows are eating “just as much hay as in the winter,” he notes. The cows are milking calves, and “they’re requiring nutrition.”
Peters agrees with Tregunno, this year’s dryness is unprecedented. A region of land in a pocket between Belleville and Brockville and north to Smiths Falls has missed about four or five critical rains for the past two months that showered surrounding areas.
“We have a little, wee shower once in a while, but it just puts the dust down and that’s it,” he notes. “I can’t really remember the last rain.”
Barry Senft, CEO of Grain Farmers of Ontario, says there are “drought areas in every one of our 15 districts. This issue is getting serious. This isn’t just a Niagara-region issue anymore.”
Some areas are getting ongoing isolated showers and crops there are doing well. Some areas are getting the odd shower and crops aren’t doing too badly, and some areas haven’t had any rain.
“The last two weeks have really had a negative effect on the crop overall,” he says.
One exception is the winter wheat crop. Senft says winter wheat harvest is done “and we’ve really had some good yields (in the range of 90 to 120 bushels per acre) reported to us. The rains that we had earlier on in the spring helped wheat out significantly.”
The other crops Grain Farmers represents, corn, soybean, oats and barley, are being affected by spotty or absence of rain. “There will be some areas where crops will be written right off and won’t be combined,” he says.
Senft says since 2009 when he took over as CEO at Grain Farmers, he’s never seen such severe dry conditions. There was some dryness in June 2012 and “we had some twisting of the corn. But then we got rains in July and we ended up having some decent crops.”
Charest says crop insurance customers eyeing their crops and trying to determine if it makes more sense to harvest damaged crops early as silage or green chop it for feed should contact the corporation first.
Agricorp can send out an adjuster within 48 hours to inspect the damage “for claim purposes and explain how their coverage works for each scenario,” she says.
Apple Growers of Ontario chair Charles Stevens says the apple crop is “great this year. Because of the sunshine, we will have the sweetest apples we’ve ever had in our lives. Sunshine changes starches into sugar.”
However, the size of the individual apples in some orchards could be affected by the lack of rain, he notes.
“The overall crop size will be normal and if we get some rain in the next 30 days, it could be even above normal,” he says. “The apples are on the trees and they are a good size up to now. But from now until harvest (usually September 10 to October 20) they need moisture to grow in size.”
If a big rainstorm hits the province this weekend and touches Ontario’s entire apple growing areas, provincial growers will have an awesome crop.
Stevens says the hot, dry conditions are not pushing harvest ahead of schedule.
“When a plant is heat stressed (when the temperature gets above 30 degrees Celsius) it shuts down and does everything it can to maintain its viability,” he notes.
As for the trees, they’re doing fine, Stevens says.
Grapes for wine are also doing well, says Niagara-on-the-Lake farmer Tregunno, who also grows grapes along with tender fruit.
“They like dry weather anyway” and growers are able to irrigate when they need to, he explains.
The Niagara area has many close sources of water for farmers to use for irrigation, such as creeks, lakes and rivers.
“There are areas where farmers are using ponds and even with drip irrigation, once your pond runs out, you’re beat,” he says. BF