ABBOTSFORD – A year after successive atmospheric river events dropped between 200 and 300 mm of rain on southern BC, many producers are still in recovery mode. The deluge resulted in several feet of water on some farms, the evacuations of thousands of people and livestock, and the Lower Mainland being cut off from the rest of Canada due to landslides.
But as producers look back on the events – many of then still waiting for financial assistance – they’re most thankful for the flood of support from neighbours and strangers as they began to rebuild.
Back to business
Caroline Mostertman of CPM Farms Ltd. and Ripples Estate Winery on Tolmie Road in Abbotsford dealt with six feet of water on her property for three weeks. Her home, winery, crops and equipment sustained significant damage.
“I was pretty much wiped out,” Mostertman says. “Every building had to be gutted and repaired. We lost, of course, the majority of our inventory, machinery, equipment – the list goes on and on.”
The 20-acre farm’s lost its blueberries but two of its three grape varieties survived.
“One produced marginally, one did not, and the third variety we had to rip out,” Mostertman says.
She, along with her husband Paul and dutiful volunteers, brought part of the farm back to working order within six months. The couple reopened their winery in May, but the rest of the farm remains a “shambles,” Mostertman says.
“We are by no means finished. What we did is we concentrated on our business first,” she says.
Chelsea Meier and her husband Karl of U&D Meier Dairy Ltd. also continue to repair their farm.
“It’s a never-ending process,” Meier says, taking a break from repairing the front of a barn where a wave had shattered one of the windows.
“We’re taking off the barn siding to put a wall in instead of a window,” she explains.
Karl has also spent time levelling a field the couple acquired before the flood. Much of the soil was washed away, reducing nitrogen levels. Corn and forage volumes were down 15% to 20% this year, Meier says.
“Last year, we made around 487 round bales out of our fields, and we’ve only been able to make 150 this year,” Meier says. “Last year, we made 4,000 little square bales and this year we’ve only been able to make 1,800.”
Fortunately, the Meiers’ cattle are healthy and milk production has remained steady.
Blueberry and saffron grower Avtar Dhillon and his family were also heavily impacted by the flooding.
“Four acres of blueberries were damaged, and all of my saffron crop is gone. The whole house was damaged,” he says.
They were just able to replant crops and move back into their home a few months ago.
Poultry producer Hester Mulder and her husband Ed lost all the layers in two barns and had four feet of water in their house.
She estimates barn damages at between $750,000 and $800,000 but thanks to the efforts of volunteers and contractors, the operation returned to full production at the end of October when chicks were placed in the repaired pullet barn, Mulder says.
Over 12% of BC farms were affected by the flooding. The Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry conducted hearings for its study on impacts to the province’s agricultural industry and government’s response to the event. The committee’s report with recommendations for the federal government is expected later this year.
But one year later, less than a quarter of the landmark $228 million federal-provincial recovery program announced in February to help farmers and ranchers has been disbursed. Combining federal disaster assistance funds with AgriRecovery monies, the cost-shared program aimed to address losses estimated at $285 million.
“To date, 478 applications have been received for the Canada-BC Flood Recovery Program for Food Security and almost $53 million has been provided to 361 applicants to help with expenses such as animal feed; shelter, fencing, the loss of perennial plants not raised for resale; and returning land to agricultural production,” the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food reports.
A total of 757 payments have been made, with many applicants receiving more than one.
Dhillon and Mostertman aren’t among them.
Mostertman says neither the AgriRecovery funding announced in February nor the federal disaster financial assistance program announced November 18 for the general public have helped.
“For many months, we were bounced back and forth between the two programs. And neither really were prepared to commit to any kind of funding,” she says.
Mostertman says the AgriRecovery program is designed for farms that have the means to pay for repairs in advance. She says farmers can’t be expected to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and submit receipts for reimbursement when they’re not generating income. And since AgriRecovery doesn’t cover the repair or replacement of equipment, the chance of them earning income is pretty low when they’ve lost everything.
“We’ve had several meetings with both AgriRecovery and DFA because in their words, we are a complicated case. Let’s face it, we just lost more than most people,” she says.
Mulder and Meier have received AgriRecovery cheques, but it’s “not enough,” says Meier, who has yet to hear back regarding DFA coverage of house repairs.
Happily, Meier was one of the 65 dairy producers who benefitted from the $941,046 garnered by the BC Dairy Flood Recovery Fund, which was fully – and promptly – disbursed to producers by the end of February.
Producers are not the only ones impacted by the delayed roll out of recovery funds. The province has yet to fully reimburse feed mills for feed provided to meet the immediate needs of livestock.
“You can speak to any feed mill in the Lower Mainland, and they can tell you it’s an absolute catastrophe,” says Top Shelf Feed general manager Dennis Comeau in Duncan. “They told us to buy the grain you need, keep the animals alive, we will pay you back. And if we got paid back 15%, I’d be real surprised.”
BC agriculture minister Lana Popham, who regularly addressed media during last fall’s flooding, was not available to comment on industry’s concerns prior to deadline.
BC Ombudsperson Jay Chalke is now asking for public input on the provincial government’s response to last year’s wildfires and floods. The programs under examination are Emergency Support Services and DFA to examine their fairness and areas for improvement. The online questionnaire is available on the Ombudsperson website until December 31.
Farmers are resilient, but the traumatic events took a toll on the mental health of many.
“A lot of people just simply can’t cope with that kind of traumatic event and carry on,” Mostertman says. “It’s financially exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting and physically exhausting.”
Meier’s children are upset by overcast or rainy days; they’re concerned about another flood and evacuation.
But none of the farmers would be where they are today without community support.
“We are so incredibly grateful because even if the financial funds were not there, the support, the people turning up every day, have kept us moving forward,” says Mostertman. “Without that we would have just shriveled up.”
Meier’s family members organized an extensive field clean-up initiative to help any farmer in the Fraser Valley remove debris.
“That had a tremendous outpour of people,” she says, from beyond the local farming community.
Mulder also credits volunteers for their farm’s recovery and return to operations this year.
“So many volunteers came out and helped us clean up. It really helped us get through this as we didn’t know where to start and how to get through it,” she says. “They’ve all gone above and beyond to help clean and repair and to ensure that things got done without delay to meet deadlines.”
– With files from Peter Mitham