Unless you have been residing in a cave for the past four months-a cool, dark, wet cave- you are aware that this summer has been one of the hottest-and driest-in Ontario in recent memory.
It is now September masquerading as a hot July day. This may make a weekend at the cottage a welcome trip to Shangri-La, but for farmers throughout Ontario this has been an annus horribilus. And the average consumer will have constant reminders this fall about the mean season, as the amount and variety of produce will be diminished in our supermarkets, and it will cost a little more-all across the board-to stock our shelves.
Because of the high value of the crop, big businesses like tobacco farms and vegetable farms owned by huge corporations can afford to irrigate their crops when Mother Nature doesn’t co-operate. Of course it is expensive, but the cost is passed onto the consumer. But most small farmers can’t afford to irrigate their crops and are in a more vulnerable position.
We spoke with a local farmer about how this summer’s weather has affected his crops and his livelihood, and how we might expect to see this reflected in prices from everything from whole wheat bread to Corn Flakes.
Mark Lass owns and operates Lassdale Farms at Punkeydoodles Corner near New Hamburg Ontario, a three-hundred acre farm about ninety minutes outside of Toronto.
Mark has been farming for thirty-one years and grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, rotating the crops to different fields each year, and tells us that rain has been much more spotty in the last few years. “This growing season so far we are down 200- 300 mm (8- 12 inches) from last couple of years.”
With very few wide, all-day showers, which are especially important at germination (to ensure a uniform crop) and at pollination, (to create the production of the seed) the rain-or lack of it-has been a constant source of anxiety.
“I was lucky in my area and got some rain that others did not,” admits Lass. “I have more clay in my soil so it holds moisture better than a sandy soil.”
Even though Lass is grateful for a bit of luck when it comes to rain this summer, he has been hit pretty hard: his wheat crop is down about 15%, and hay and pasture production is down about 50%. “I don’t know what my yield on soybeans or corn will be yet. It wont be a great yield but hopefully not too bad. Some farmers took their corn off early because it was dying, and that will hurt them significantly.”
Even a vigorous downpour can have downside, as Lass explains. “When rain comes fast and furious, it’s like dumping a bucket of water on one tomato plant. It washes away the good soil and doesn’t soak in.”
Irrigation systems are not an option for the average independent farmer. “I can not begin to afford to pump all that water for the crops that I grow. I do not have the equipment, a river, or a well that could supply that much water. It takes 22,000 gallons (108,000 litres) of water to equal one inch of rain per acre. That’s 6,600,000 gallons (32,400,000 litres) of water to irrigate just my farm.”
Because hay and pasture production is down by half, the price is up three-hundred per-cent, and even local farmers are outsourcing for their horses and livestock. “A friend of mine bought hay from Saskatchewan to ensure he has enough for winter,” says Lass. Lass tells us that many farmers will be feeding their horses and cattle straw-sometimes used to supplement hay when hay is scarce- just to keep their stomachs full. Even so, the price of straw is up two-hundred per-cent.
“Farmers are price takers,” explains Lass. “The price that I get paid for my crop is determined by the Chicago Board of Trade, local supply and demand and the value of the Canadian dollar. My yield will be down on my farm but will probably do okay financially because of the big price hike. Because the drought has been so wide-spread the prices are high.”
So how does this break down for the average consumer?
Lass spells it out: “You can make ninety-five loaves of whole wheat bread from one bushel of wheat. When the price of wheat goes up four dollars per bushel, the price of bread should go up four cents a loaf. Today’s price is $8.70 per bushel.”
“You can make sixty-nine 18 oz boxes of corn flakes from one bushel of corn. When the price goes up three dollars per bushel, corn flakes should go up four cents a box. There is, at today’s price, eleven cents worth of corn in a box of corn flakes.”
If there is a silver lining to all of this-thin though it is- Lass points out that, “The crop that you do get off in a dry year is typically higher in nutrients creating a better wine, more milk production, tastier beef…”
So for us, the consumer, it is a case of give and take, supply and demand, an occasional prayer for rain and a tip of the hat to the tireless men and women who work small farms day in and day out, to bring food to our families. Bear that in mind the next time you see an increase in the price of a box of “Wheaties.” Never was there a clearer case of thinking outside of the box.