Challenging season brings troubled crops, record high insurance payouts
It goes one of two ways each year, farmers singing praises or cursing the skies. This year, they’re doing a bit of both.
Owing to an abundance of rain and cooler temps, saturated land left farmers sidelined. Soon began the prayers for sun to save the soggy soil from Mother Nature’s whimsical moods.
Planting was delayed until late May, on average, with the final rows of corn being sown at the start of June. It won’t be until later this autumn when area farmers can say with any confidence how the late start has affected their bottomline.
On the minds of farmers now is the potential for an early winter’s kiss. Only time will tell, but ever the optimists, local farmers have their sights set on breaking even with average yields.
Farming 125 acres of corn, beans, wheat and alfalfa just outside of Listowel, Grant Martin took a break from sweeping outside his garage.
He says there was concern at the start of the season; his plants are late maturing, and it'll likely be a late harvest. “By about two weeks,” he guesses. His wheat was off, and the corn will be under, but he says the rest looks good.
Martin is a dairy farmer, so any wet, immature corn will go to his cows — not a big deal. For cash-croppers, lower yields raise the stakes.
In Harriston, 23-kilometres north, it’s been a year of firsts for Ralph and Betty Tarr. It's the first year they’ve had to dry wheat, the first year they’ve had to replant soybeans and the first year they’ve rented out a portion of land to bring in some cash.
Betty sat on a couch talking on the phone, her left arm in a brace from a recent fracture. Ralph had just finished dinner, the remnants of pie crust on a plate. A newscaster chattered from a TV in the background. Earlier that day, they finished taking off the last of their wheat.
Sitting at 16.3% moisture and needing to be at 13.5% to keep, the Tarr’s had to send the wheat off to dry.
At 75-years-old, Ralph crops 200 acres and has been farming the land since the 1960s. Betty says he’ll be at it “until they carry him off the farm.”
Soybeans were planted on June 1, but had to be replanted a couple weeks later. Betty blames the wet, muggy weather for the seeds not germinating.
Mike Berlett of Berlett Farms in Listowel has farmed since 1985 and crops 300 acres broken up among hay, alfalfa, wheat, soybeans and corn.
“The frost and freezing rain last winter just burned [the winter wheat] off, they were just terrible crops so we no-tilled spring wheat into it,” Berlett said over a phone call from an outdoor farm show in Woodstock.
The warmer weather didn’t exactly bring relief. “I’ve never seen a spring like it, where we had so much rain and cool, damp weather. Things never got dry really," Berlett said.
Their wheat harvest this year yielded 80 bushels per acre, compared to their typical yield of over 100 bushels per acre. Berlett says it will be a down-trend year across the board. “You can’t do much about it, you got to take it in stride and move on,” he said.
Del Cressman has been farming for 47 years and is the owner of 4,500-acres of soybean, corn, wheat, and white beans at Hasta Farms in Listowel.
Sitting behind his desk, weather satellite images flashed over a nearby computer screen. Faced with the abundance of rain in the spring, Cressman had to “shoot from the hip like crazy” deciding where, what and when to plant.
“You normally want the ground dry to cultivate. This year we had to scratch at it on the damp side to get it dry enough to plant the corn, which usually is detrimental,” Cressman said.
Despite the hectic start to the season, he says enough heat and showers came around to keep things growing. With the season now running behind, he says most of their harvest won’t be until November; visions of drying corn on Christmas day cross his mind.
“I don’t know how we’re going to end up, on the money end of it. We might gross a quarter less - that’s a lot of money,” Cressman said, explaining that poor market prices and lower yields will make it tough to recoup the money they have into the crops.
“We might have been better off to just sit there and wait and hope it was going to dry up and take the insurance later on … it’s looking back and thinking, maybe I shouldn’t have done all that,” he said.
But a farmer doesn’t let their land sit empty. They’re going to “fight like crazy” to get off whatever they can, though some crops may not finish
“I’ve learned to expect and be optimistic that next spring will be a normal year, and that’s the way we’ll plan,” Cressman said. “Everybody wants to hear a sobbing story … this area has been more forgiving than some areas.”
Frank Sluys was watering hanging plants at his business, Listowel Greenhouses, located on his farm where he crops 75-acres, the smallest operation visited.
Nearly a month late on planting, Sluys said his wheat was disappointing, coming in at only 85 bushels per acre. He was shooting for 100. Despite the low yields, Sluys says the pressure lies in market prices.
“Nobody knows the weather, but you can read a little bit into what the futures bring,” he said. He’s planning on corn for next season, but may settle for beans, depending on price.
While he admits he’s been spoiled by a few good years, he still thinks it’s not fair for people to complain too much, saying cash-croppers will always cry the blues.
“That’s what we do, we gamble every year on the weather and the price were going to get," Sluys said.
If there is an early frost below the -2 degree Celsius mark (a killing frost) it could stop photosynthesis and bring growth to a halt, affecting yields.
“The frost kills the cell, it ruptures the cell membrane and causes crystals within the cell and it basically kills living tissue,” explained Horst Bohner, an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) crop specialist, during a phone call.
Soybeans entered most fields a month late on average, and will be about 10 days late for harvest. Bohner explained that for every three days late planting in spring, there’s one day later for harvest in the fall.
“Once [soybean leaves] start to yellow, we’re really past the risk of frost damage because photosynthesis has stopped anyway,” he said. But Bohner says soybean growth was hampered during dry periods in July and August.
A September 2019 Great Lakes Grain crop assessment predicts average soybean yields this year coming in at 40.2 bushels per acre. Corn is harder to predict, affected by planting dates and chosen hybrids. Growth in corn requires less heat units when planted later and growth phases progress faster, potentially resulting in lower yields.
“We are quite concerned that some of this late-planted corn will have time to reach black-layer, or physiological maturity before a killing frost,” Bohner said.
As for what percentage of the crop may not make it? Bohner says no-one can tell until that frost dates hits: “We certainly can’t handle an early frost … what we want is a long, long open fall.”
David Phillips, a senior climatologist with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Canada, couldn’t say for sure what the chances are for an early frost, instead pointing out that last year’s frost in North Perth arrived on Oct. 17.
According to data from OMAFRA, the average first frost date in the North Perth area is Oct. 1. Every one in two years, there will be no frost before the beginning of October.
In spite of all the technology and science available to modern farming, there are still no real assurances to satisfy the uncertainty of what is, or isn’t to come. As this stage, it’s a waiting game, and livelihoods depend on it. But nobody becomes a farmer searching for the path of least resistance.
If you’re cropping corn, a glimmer of hope can be found in the most recent field crop estimates from Stats Canada published on Sept. 12. Using a variety of combined data to predict yields, the agency estimates that corn yields across the country will be the second largest on record, with Ontario’s numbers coming in at just under nine million tonnes, up from from 8.8 million tonnes in 2018.
As for soybean, the data predicts 3.9 million tonnes, down from 4.2 million tonnes in 2018.
All wheat comes in at 1.5 million tonnes predicted for this year’s harvest, compared with 2.2 million tonnes in 2018. The final crop estimates will be released on Dec. 6.
Stephanie Charest, a spokesperson for Agricorp, said in an email, the crown insurance corporation has paid out “record-high payments totalling over $85-million, as of Sept. 16” in production insurance. Charest said the year was a "stressful planting season for farmers in Ontario because of excess rain.” More payments are being processed, and yield claims won’t be available until 2020.
Charest went on to say, “Claims for unseeded acreage this year were the highest in the history of the program,” totalling 268,961-acres. Claims for replanted acreage totalled 253,568-acres and production insurance for rainfall has paid out a record $3.8 million.