FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. — Farmers in the Peace region are continuing to struggle due to this year’s drought, and some are unconvinced that proposed government programs will help.
Malcolm Odermatt, president of the BC Grain Producers Association and a grain farmer in Baldonnel, says it was a dry fall in 2022, which is important for forage crops, such as hay, and any crops grown for seed production, such as fescue.
He said there was a lack of precipitation this spring as well.
“So basically, all those crops are a write-off. It was too dry last fall, and this spring, they’re no good,” Odermatt said.
Due to the spring of 2023 being dry and the showers across the region being spotty, some of his crops are doing well, but others may not be usable.
“You’ll talk to one farmer, and they’re pretty happy with the crops this year, and the next farmer, he’s like, ‘no, we’re losing money this year,’” Odermatt explained.
“The rain we’re getting now is wonderful because it’s going to make sure that the crop, they’ve done all their flowering, and now they’re going to set seed, and they need moisture in order to be able to set nice heavy good quality seeds.”
Fort St. John received approximately 26 millimetres of rain in June and 66 millimetres in July and
Odermatt believes grain producers are happy with the rain they’ve gotten recently but noted that they “might be cursing it in a month” when they’re trying to harvest their crops.
The only concern brought on by rainfall is the increased potential for disease among the crops, such as sclerotinia. However, Odermatt says the benefits of precipitation outweigh the potential negative effects.
Ernest Wiebe, a mixed farmer with grain and cattle in the Buick Creek area, said his farm also had a very early, arid spring and a dry fall last year.
“[The dry fall] expedited our early, early spring of getting onto the fields for seeding,” Wiebe said.
He said the grasses in the hay crops have not been growing like they normally would, leading to a hay shortage.
“The crops were off to a really good start in the spring with the moisture that was there; we did have one early spring shower here locally that caused almost excessive moisture for just about a week,” Wiebe said.
“It’s been dry since then, and most of the crops look decent where I am, but north of me, there are grain farmers that haven’t gotten hardly any rain at all.”
He said a farmer about six kilometres away from him had three inches of rain and hail this summer, but his farm didn’t get anything.
On his farm, he said most of the barley and wheat “look decent,” but the oats were seeded later and are struggling. His canola varies by field.
Wiebe said he’d also likely be short for feed for his cattle.
“Normally, hay, you can purchase it for about five cents a pound, and I’m hearing reports of people selling for 10 to 12 cents a pound, and there’s none out there,” Wiebe explained.
“There’s not enough to be had, and I’ve already heard of four ranchers that are going to have to sell a bunch of their cattle in order just to make it work because they don’t have enough feed for this winter.”
In response to the issues farmers are facing, B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food is working with the federal government and two associations on programs to provide support.
Wiebe said the program he looked into is an interest-free loan program through AgriStability, a program delivered by the B.C. and federal governments.
“They’re going to allow $150 per cow as an interest-free loan to buy feed, so it’s still a loan that needs to be paid back somehow. $150 only buys one bale at this point.” Wiebe explained.
“That feeds one cow for one month. And where are you going to buy it? Because there is none in the area to buy.”
Payments are only made if a producer’s current year margin falls more than 30 percent below their average margins.
Since the amount received through the program only feeds a cow for a month, he said it really only delays the inevitable.
“You’re going to sell your cows, and when you sell your cows, you have a big flush of income on which taxes need to be paid,” Wiebe said.
“I haven’t heard anything about any tax relief for these farmers that are having to sell a significant portion of their herd, and when you have that bump in income for that year, that immediately disqualifies a person for AgriStability because the revenue is too high.”
The other program, Access To Feed, is funded by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Food delivered in partnership with the BCCA and intended to match hay and feed sellers with farmers and producers.
Wiebe said it would be nice to have a place to look to see where feed is available, but getting it to the Peace region is an extra expenditure that not everyone will be able to afford and may not be worth it in the long run.
Jordan Kealy, a cattle farmer near Cecil Lake, echoed Wiebe and Odermatt’s thoughts on the drought in 2023, and he said it’s happened to him before.
During the heat dome in 2021, he said many farmers across B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan had their dugouts dry out or drop substantially.
Last year, he said two dugouts went dry on his farm, requiring him to dig deeper.
“When it comes to runoff, normally, we get runoff between two days to a week when everything melts,” Kealy explained.
“This year, all we got was enough just to fill the dugouts, and then there was barely any runoff at all.”
He explained runoff helps keep the clay moist in the fields, especially when there is little rain.
In regards to the rain over the past week, he said the hay has already matured, and it will start to drop in nutrients and overall quality at this point.
Kealy also doesn’t think the government programs will help, primarily due to the cost of hay and how much farmers will need for the winter.
Even though he’s already downsized due to his position with the PRRD, he said he will be short when they finish haying and may have to look at selling more animals, which is not always cost-effective.
“The problematic part is that farming is already such a narrow margin of what farmers make off of their product, especially if you factor in the time that they put in when they don’t make any money at all,” Kealy said.
“On average, three per cent of small farms are disappearing every year… When they disappear, it’s a big commercial farm, or in some cases, corporate farms that are buying the land, and that produces that our local infrastructure will never see.”
During droughts, he said auctions tend to get flooded, which drops the price for farmers, but lines the pockets of those who process and package the produce.
AgriStability and Access To Feed were created to support farmers during this time, and for information on the Access to Feed Program, visit the BC Cattlemen’s Association’s website, and for details on the AgriService BC, visit the Government of B.C.’s website.