It must seem strange now to the thousands of Canadian farmers looking wistfully at their rain-soaked and flooded crops, but not so many months ago their worry was drought. What a difference a summer makes. When the long-awaited rain finally arrived, it made up for lost time. First came the optimistic reports: the nation’s crops hadn’t wilted after all. But by Thanksgiving, the traditional harvest feast, it was obvious that Canada’s farmland had been treated to too much of a good thing. Farmers from the Rockies to the Atlantic, whose
hopes had risen in late summer, now faced the possibility of disaster, with acre upon acre of wet and rotting crops stranded in muddy fields.
Almost every evening throughout September, the television weather satellite had shown another gloomy picture of total cloud cover as the weatherman predicted yet another day of rain. For some people it was merely an inconvenience, for others the dreary conditions meant weeks of emotional depression. But for farmers it was
serious enough that Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan asked the nation at the still-raining end of September to “pray for good harvesting conditions because we can still salvage a big crop.”
Not all farmers were passing the buck to the heavens. Gordon Thomas, a commercial apple grower in Cardinal, Ontario, who couldn’t get pickers to harvest his McIntosh crop in the rain, suspected a political plot. “I think it’s René Lévesque who’s done this.” Tending to discredit such a conspiracy theory were the diluvian downpours that flooded Quebec’s own fields of corn, cereals and vegetables. Farmers who risked taking their harvesting machinery into the fields, bogged down in the mud and water.
The story was much the same through most of agrarian Canada: though many early crops were in and it was still premature to declare the waterlogged remaining crops a disaster, the odds were increasing against an extended, drying-out sunny period arriving before the frost. Only British Columbia remained virtually unscathed.
In rainy PEI, only 10% to 15% of the 55,000-acre potato crop had been harvested by early this month. The biggest
problem—as with crops in many parts of the country—was not digging the spuds, but hauling them off the field. A harvester could dig a truck load in about 20 minutes but it might take the truck up to 2}/i hours to churn its way out through the red clay mud. The wind and rain swept through the orchards of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and stalled picking, but there was little damage since most of the apples were still firmly attached to their stalks.
Many parts of Ontario had their wettest weather since the turn of the century. In the fertile Holland Marsh area north of Toronto the carrots, celery and onions were sinking in the rich, black quagmire. Cornfields looked like tidal mudflats and in many orchards apples were bobbing in pond-sized puddles among the rows of trees. Flood waters cut a brown swath through Frank Eborall’s vineyard in the Niagara peninsula. “If I put a machine in there it digs ruts in the rows. This cuts into the roots and, when the water freezes, that kills the vines.” Hardest hit in the province, was the big white bean crop from southwestern Ontario, the beans of pork and beans. Murray Cardiff farms 250 acres of white beans near Ethel, Ont., and he hadn’t harvested any. The stalks fell in heavy rain and the pods either rotted or sprouted on the ground. He expected to lose as much as $40,000.
In Manitoba, where the September weather was the wettest and coldest since 1945, less than half the harvest was in before the rest was soaked. By the time the sun finally broke through in late September-early October and dried crops enough
for some harvesting, it was clear the wet spell had caused discoloration, sprouting, mildew and weight loss. In many cases, the best a farmer could hope for was to break even by selling top-quality grain as lowgrade feed.
Well into October, Charles Gingras, still hadn’t harvested a single kernel of grain from his farm near Meadowlake in northwest Saskatchewan. He watched through the downpour as the damp swaths of grain in his fields sprouted and their grades dropped lower and lower. At the beginning of this month, 40% of Saskatchewan’s grain crop was still in the field. In the area north of Saskatoon it was 75% to 85%. Not since the falls of 1951 and 1959 had conditions been this bad. Both times, most of the harvesting couldn’t be done until the following spring.
While most farmers across the country were battling the mud, Albertans in the Peace River country had their own problem. On October 4, Victor Hewitt and his neighbors woke up to find their crops under two feet of snow. Twenty years a farmer, Hewitt claimed: “I’ve never been hit this hard. As far as I’m concerned, the crop is lost this year.” By the first week of October, only 38% of Alberta’s main crop, barley, had been harvested, compared to the norm of 75%. Growers lost the lucrative malting barley that many depend on to provide their profit.
The dreary rainfall had farmers, especially in the Prairies, busy juggling bills and organizing finances so they could afford to plant a spring crop. At Thanksgiving, many farmers were still waiting to see which would come first, enough sun or the frost. As Paul Couture of Quebec’s Union des Producteurs Agricoles put it: “The month of October is our last chance.”
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