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Catastrophic crop loss highlights need for small-farm insurance

Four years after the Small Scale Farm Manitoba report, crop insurance for small-scale food producers doesn’t seem to be on the province’s radar

It was shaping up to be a banner year for Justin Girard.

Hearts and Roots, which Girard runs with wife Britt Embry, is a certified organic farm that sells veggies through farmers’ markets, wholesale and Instagram-worthy subscription boxes.

But on July 14, instead of shots of glistening greens or farm dog Merle, Hearts and Roots posted something quite different to social media.

“It’s sad, it’s hard, we’ll push on, but heavy boots today. One hundred kilometre per hour winds, two inches of rain and hail came with an unwarned storm at around 3 a.m. this morning,” their Instagram post read, accompanied by a picture of wind-twisted greenhouse-like ‘hoop houses.’

“You can work the hardest you’ve ever worked, grow the nicest crops you’ve ever grown, dare to feel a little proud of it all, but the climate calls the shots.”

When winds destroyed the protective hoop houses, some of Justin Girard’s tomato plants drowned, while other fruit rotted because of the soggy ground.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Girard said the farm got 4.5 inches of rain over about five days. Gale-force winds wrecked the plastic-and-metal hoop houses.

“They survived 70 clicks, they survived 80 clicks, but they didn’t make it through the 100. A hundred just took them out, ripped out the ground anchors and pushed them over,” said Girard.

The houses had sheltered tomatoes and cucumbers, and most of those survived, but some fruit was knocked off or rotted on the muddy ground.

“Of course now all the water’s gone because it was a drought beforehand, but you can only take so much water so fast,” Girard told the Manitoba Co-operator.

In total, Girard estimated he lost an acre of crops to drowning, wind and hail. This represented at least $40,000 in sales. Hearts and Roots had to let its two, full-time staff go. Luckily, said Girard, they were able to find work on other farms.

“I’m just basically going to try to break even,” he said. “I’m not exactly certain what my plan is going to look like next year.

“I know people think small-scale farmers, it’s small potatoes, you’re not losing that much money, but last year we grossed about $35,000 an acre,” said Girard. This year, they were on track to gross $40,000 per acre, and they lost about an acre of crops. “It’s a significant loss.”

The catastrophic crop loss highlights an issue that has been on the radar of the Manitoba small-farm movement for some time. For producers like Justin Girard, there is no such thing as crop insurance.

While Manitoba Agriculture Services Corporation insures vegetable acres, commercial vegetable growers must grow a minimum of three acres of each crop for it to be eligible for insurance.

Girard farms just over three acres, total. On that, he grows about 40 varieties.

“MASC meets annually with the Vegetable Growers Association of Manitoba (VGAM) to review Manitoba’s vegetable program so that MASC’s programs continue to meet the needs of both small and large commercial vegetable producers,” Doug Wilcox, manager of product knowledge and support with MASC, said in an emailed statement.

“MASC already offers insurance programs for small vegetable and livestock producers. Additionally, MASC is committed to enhancing existing products and developing new products that meet the needs of the agriculture industry and align with government priorities,” said Wilcox.

While some private insurance companies offer crop insurance, the Co-operator did not find a company that sells comprehensive insurance for small vegetable crops like Girard’s.

In 2015, the Small Scale Farm Manitoba working group, led by Wayne Lees, released a report that included 21 recommendations for the province to enact to assist the small-scale farmers and food producers of Manitoba and to relieve tension between small producers and provincial inspectors.

Direct Farms Manitoba was formed based on a recommendation of that report to form a unifying organization for small-scale producers and processors. It has since become the champion of the list of recommendations.

Phil Veldhuis is president of Direct Farms Manitoba. He said many of the recommendations have been acted on, but the recommendation to explore small-scale crop and livestock insurance has not.

Veldhuis said he has pushed the issue with the Direct Farms Manitoba board before. He expects it will become more “excited” about the issue now that Girard and a few other farmers have been hit hard by weather.

Phil Veldhuis is president of Direct Farms Manitoba and a beekeeper.
photo: Phil's Honey (Facebook)

However, said Veldhuis, the board is made up of volunteer farmers. From 2015 to 2017, small farms had professional development specialist Jeff Eastman at their disposal through the former Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, but that position was dissolved in 2017.

“The association (Direct Farms Manitoba) now provides the small-farm sector with the expertise and support needed to work directly with various specialists and program staff throughout the department,” a provincial spokesperson told the Co-operator.

Veldhuis said to his knowledge, they were never asked if they had all the expertise needed to support their member farmers. “I don’t think we do,” he said.

Eastman still acts as a contact person within the province, said Veldhuis, who added he’d probably consult with him when pursuing the issue of crop insurance.

“I think our association would be getting more done if we did have that point person in government,” he said. “We’re forging on as best we can.”

But developing crop insurance for farms that often grow dozens of varieties of produce won’t be easy.

Market gardener Bruce Berry compared the current, MASC crop insurance model to offering a Caterpillar earth-hauler wheel to someone riding a bicycle.

“It’s just irrelevant,” he said. “(It’s) assuming a model that’s not our way of farming.”

Bruce Berry of Almost Urban Vegetables, farms in St. Norbert.
photo: Almost Urban (Facebook)

Like Girard, Berry grows about 40 varieties of produce. He said with that amount of variety, there’s always something that isn’t doing well. The other vegetables make up for it.

He said estimating a claim would be difficult, as he doesn’t take tight, specific data of each crop.

Chad Wiens raises vegetables and livestock on about two acres near St. Adolphe, just south of Winnipeg. He said he has about 12 higher-valued crops, out of about 40, that might make fiscal sense to insure. No one crop makes up the bulk of his farm’s income.

Wiens said he also grows multiple successions of crops over one season. For instance, if he lost all his lettuce now, it would only represent less than half of the $10,000 worth of lettuce he’ll grow this year.

Chad Wiens raises vegetables and livestock near St. Adolphe.
photo: Supplied

Veldhuis said they don’t need a crop-by-crop insurance, but rather a “whole-farm” catastrophic loss insurance.

He recognized that Direct Farms Manitoba will need more data to make economic obligations clear to the province. It will also need the federal government to be on board.

Veldhuis, a beekeeper, participates in MASC’s AgriStability program, which will provide financial assistance if a producer’s income falls below a certain threshold. Veldhuis said he would encourage other small producers to participate in the program, but warned that payments tend to come late — up to 18 months after the fact.

“It might help them get back out of a hole,” he said.

For Bruce Berry, provincial assistance doesn’t have to come in the form of crop insurance as long as the direct farm sector receives proportional support from Manitoba Agriculture.

“It’s not of much interest at their level,” said Berry. “We’re just not on their radar.”

“I understand it’s easier to insure a crop if there’s one crop and there’s a lot of it, because it’s an easier algorithm. But it’s not like we’re not producing a significant amount of food on a small scale,” said Girard. “I’m probably grossing more on an acre than a lot of other farms that are easily insured. Just because I do less acres and I do a more diverse array of crops, for some reason then the risk is all ours.

“We’re still going to farm in some capacity,” he said. “We obviously won’t have the resources to invest as much into the farm as we were hoping.”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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