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No end in sight for horrendous harvest this season

Sarah Rennie

As overheard in restaurants, cafés and everywhere else farmers tend to gather, this year’s harvest season is the worst most have ever experienced. Forget the old clichés of farmers grumbling about the weather; this nightmare has been unprecedented and unrelenting.

The story starts with a cold wet spring. By the time summer finally arrived the region was already facing a shortage in heat units. Autumn brought with it a return to cold and wet temperatures, with six inches of rain falling in the last two weeks of October alone. “The corn went down. In some cases it was a twisted jumbled mess,” says Ormstown-based farmer Peter Finlayson, recounting how one farmer had posted photos from his tractor in which it’s impossible to make out the rows after the rain and powerful windstorm on November 1. This was followed by freezing rain, sub-zero temperatures in the double digits at night and then a stubborn snow cover that simply refused to melt. The province-wide propane shortage caused by the Canadian National Railway strike only added to the miserable conditions facing farmers, many of whom ran short of propane they needed to dry their wet grain. “It’s just been one thing after another,” says Finlayson.

Harvesting soybeans in the snow at Tullochgorum Farm in Ormstown on November 23. A dreadful fall season for farmers has seen extremely difficult conditions for harvesting and drying grains across the province. (PHOTO: Loraine Lamb Lalonde)

 

By the last week of November, three-quarters of the corn across Quebec sat unharvested, with 10 percent of soybean crops still in the ground as well. “Because we seeded so late in the spring, we knew we would be harvesting late,” says Josiane Carrière, the secretary-treasurer of the Haut-Saint-Laurent UPA syndicate. “With the cold, the ice and the snow, equipment is breaking down,” she explains, suggesting the heavy snow and wet stalks can cause combines to seize. A delayed harvest also meant the farmers were not able to start the work that optimally would be done in preparation for spring. For fear of run-off, strict rules restrict the spreading of manure or fertilizers on snow-covered or frozen ground. Colder temperatures also made plowing more difficult.

What’s there is not great

Quality-wise, what the farmers have managed to pull from their fields has been less than A grade. “I have heard of some corn grading as low as #4 or #5,” says Finlayson. And all of it is being harvested with a high moisture content that will require more time to dry.
The resolution of the CN strike on November 26 brought some relief to farmers after eight long days of rationing any remaining propane while for the most part staying out of their fields.
“I think we have another month to play with,” says Steven Lalonde of Tullochgorum Farm in Ormstown, who admits he’s not overly worried he won’t be able to get the grain off, though he is very aware that “what’s there is not great.”

When it comes to Lalonde’s organic popcorn harvest, however, “It was a total loss,” he says, and he has already started contacting customers to let them know. The frigid temperatures at night proved to be too much. “It was questionable whether the corn had reached maturity, but the moisture content was just too high and it split the kernels.” A cracked kernel will not pop. A frustrating setback, this year’s devastating results come on the back of a disappointing season last year as well. With around three tonnes of popcorn remaining in storage, the Lalondes have little choice but to pull out of the organic popcorn market for a year while focusing on maintaining their two largest clients with the remainder of their stock.

For Josiane Carrière, the end to the season is far from in sight. But, she notes, “our farmers right now are the definition of resilience.” And, as Peter Finlayson suggests, “the law of averages would say we have to swing around to above-average temperatures.” A hope that might just get the farming community through the winter.

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