Farmers face uncertainty about reimbursement for washed-out crops

Fall rains devastated potato and vegetable crops across the Fraser Valley, and now producers face uncertainty about how much the government is going to help them.

Peter Schouten of Heppell’s Potato Corp. suffered some of the worst weather-related crop losses last fall that he has seen as a farmer.

Fall rains devastated potato and vegetable crops across the Fraser Valley, and now producers face uncertainty about how much the government is going to help them.

The soggy September was disastrous for many farmers. Peter Schouten of Heppell’s Potato Corp. said they were the worst losses he has seen in 17 years as a farm owner. The largest producer in Abbotsford, he plants 650 acres of potatoes on Sumas Prairie, and lost about 30 per cent of it, worth about $2 million.

Poinder Bhatti told the news he planted 110 acres of broccoli, and lost 78 of those, or 400 tons, representing $275,000.

In October, the provincial agriculture ministry announced it had put together a nine-person working group to address the losses, but questions remain.

Rob Butler of the B.C. Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, said producers have received money from crop insurance – for those who had it.

The AgriStability program will also reimburse farmers, but that income stabilization, administered by the province, is slow in coming. Some farmers need help now to afford to plant this spring.

The AgriRecovery program is a joint federal/provincial program designed to compensate farmers in the event of natural disasters such as droughts, floods or disease.

It is triggered by the provincial government, which then pays 40 per cent of the assistance, and the federal government pays the remaining 60 per cent.

“We’re still pushing for that,” said Butler. “I don’t know why the (provincial) government is reluctant.”

He has received indications that Ottawa is willing to activate AgriRecover, but the province is holding up the process. Butler noted that if Victoria is worried about overcompensating farmers, the AgriRecovery program offers a means for them to claw back funds.

“You can at least become stabilized,” added Butler.

Schouten, who has been working with government officials on the compensation issue, also believes Ottawa would be prepared to accept the situation as disastrous, and help producers.

“I know we have the feds on board,” he said. “We (Heppell’s) need it, and other producers definitely need it.”

While Schouten’s dollar losses may have been among the greatest, other smaller producers lost their entire crops, and their entire income.

“Some guys never even took the harvester out,” he said.

He noted some farmers don’t have crop insurance, and AgriStability will not come through for up to 18 months.

“Some of them will have to go into their equity,” predicted Schouten.

He believes AgriRecovery is warranted, and would be a sound investment by the province.

“It’s all money into our economy, and it brings money from the feds.”

Last year, the federal government gave a $450-million package to Prairie farmers who had millions of acres wiped out by flooding, primarily in Saskatchewan, but also in Alberta and Manitoba.

Estimates are that B.C. producers would need $30 million.

The amount needed, and whether AgriRecovery is warranted, are questions that came up at a three-hour meeting with growers and agriculture ministry officials on Jan. 20, said Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen.

He said the ministry must write a submission to B.C. Agriculture Minister Ben Stewart, and has been asked to do that “as expeditiously as possible.”

Van Dongen said if the agriculture ministry sees there is “any pain” to producers, then the issue should be submitted to Treasury Board for AgriRecovery funding.

“This is a one-in-90-year event for potato farmers,” said van Dongen.

“It is a catastrophic event.”