Joe Dickenson shouldn’t be near knee-deep in wet clay, not in late June. Not a month into planting season, but he’s losing a race against time and nature.
“This is a different,” Dickenson, a farmer for 16 years in Lambton County, said of this year’s planting season. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We’re a month late on planting, and it’s never been this late. I’m concerned.”
Hammered by a soggy, cool spring, an unprecedented amount of farmland is not yet planted in Southwestern Ontario, one of the country’s richest farm belts.
“I would think that this is the latest planting season that we’ve ever seen,” said Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman, who lives in Oxford County. “(Farmers) have waited in angst for good weather, but they just haven’t had it.”
Agricorp, the provincial crop insurance agency, has been flooded with damage reports from farmers who fear crippling yield reductions and crop losses.
As of June 25, the agency said it had received more than 8,000 damage reports from Ontarian farmers, with about two-thirds of them from the province’s southwest.
During the last five years, total damage reports provincewide to this point in the year averaged 3,604.
“The number of damage reports Agricorp receives year-to-year is steady. However, this year, we have received a significant number of damage reports because of wet planting conditions,” said Stacey Edwards, a spokesperson for the agency.
Dickenson is among the farmers hard-hit by the wet weather. His farm in Lambton – the county with the most damage reports filed to Agricorp this year at 1,246 – is heavy Brisbane clay, which retains water for days. Farmers on clay soils typically need a week of dry weather for crops to develop fully their root systems.
Of the 120 hectares Dickenson farms, about 50 per cent is planted. A year ago, he would’ve had it all done a month ago.
“I’d usually have corn in by the first two weeks of May. This year, we finished (June 23),” he said. “I usually have soybeans in by May 24. This year we still haven’t finished.”
Dickenson missed the crop insurance deadline for corn, extended twice already this year to June 17, and will get no compensation if his yields are affected. But at least his corn is planted, he said. Others haven’t been so lucky.
Randy Molzen, of East Lambton, has planted corn and soybeans in his 285-hectare farm for three decades. As of Tuesday, he’d planted about 70 per cent of his property, but it’ll be the first time of his career without growing corn.
“Corn needs more heat to grow, and the heat just hasn’t been there,” Molzen said. “I’m usually done the first week of June. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
In an average season, Molzen plants half his hectarage with soybeans and a quarter each with corn and winter wheat. This year, he’s planting soybeans only. Corn may not mature before its killed by frost and his winter wheat crop, planted last fall, drowned this spring.
“At least I have crop insurance. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t sleep too well,” he said. “With insurance, I pay my bills. I break even, but there’s no trip to Florida this year.”
The economic impact of reduced crop yields could rock the agriculture sector, said Peter Johnson, an agronomist and long-time farmer from Essex County.
“For a large part of Ontario, we planted a full month late,” Johnson said, adding he finished planting in early June. “And the probability of high yield, planted a month late, is extremely low.”
In his experience, Johnson said, when planting is delayed a month, yields are reduced by as much as 75 bushels a hectare for corn – compared to last year’s yield of 445 to 495 bushels a hectare – and 25 bushels a hectare for soybeans, compared to a last year’s 173 bushels a hectare.
“Ask anybody in London if they could survive taking a 15 per cent reduction in their income. For most people, I think they’d find that their expenses exceeded their income.”
But predictions are precarious, Johnson said. They depend, as they do every year, on the weather.
“If we get a great summer, then those numbers won’t hold true.”
DAMAGE REPORTS BY COUNTY
The number of damage reports this season compared to the five-year averages to the same point in the year. Damage reports are filed with Agricorp when farmers have concerns about their crop or planting conditions. They’re an early sign of potential insurance claims to come.
Lambton County: 1,246 (364)
Chatham-Kent: 1,033 (413)
Essex County: 877 (416)
Middlesex County: 585 (188)
Huron County: 367 (245)
Perth County: 357 (199)
Elgin County: 264 (95)
Bruce County: 211 (106)
Oxford County: 183 (114)
Total Selected Counties: 5,123 (2,141)
Total Ontario: 8,158 (3,604)
– This season’s figures as of June 25