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Normand Gagnon stands next to one of his corn fields destroyed by flood waters on his farm in the town of St-Paul-de-I'lle-aux-Noix south of Montreal, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail)
Normand Gagnon stands next to one of his corn fields destroyed by flood waters on his farm in the town of St-Paul-de-I'lle-aux-Noix south of Montreal, Wednesday, May 25, 2011. (Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail)

Inundated fields add to stressful spring for beleaguered farmers Add to ...

At a time of year when the first shoots of wheat or corn should be sprouting, farmers in the Prairies and Quebec are cursing flooded fields and gazing skyward in rain-soaked despair.

While Canadians have been transfixed this spring by the plight of 3,000 people forced out of their homes along Quebec's Richelieu River and with the dramatic rise of the Assiniboine in Manitoba, vast swaths of cropland and pasture have been flooded out of commission.

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For thousands of farmers in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec, flood and rain have already eliminated any chance of profitability in a year where commodity prices are high.

While farmers along the Red River in southern Manitoba are accustomed to floods and have fields designed for quick drainage, less experience with inundation is adding to stress in other parts of the Prairies and Quebec.

Where land should smell of freshly tilled earth and manure, the aroma of rotting fish is wafting out of the Richelieu Valley southeast of Montreal. Farmers fret debris and contaminants will scar their land after nearly six weeks underwater.

Giant carp are swimming where seeds should be germinating. In the few areas where waters have receded, muddy fields are strewn with logs, barrels and junk like basketball nets and lawn ornaments. Soon there will be plenty of dead fish, too.

Fish stranded inland started out as an amusing distraction but quickly turned into an added nuisance. Incredulous farmers were told they need permits and must try to save fish when pumping out water or face fines up to $1,000.

"There are clearly some bureaucrats out there who don't have enough to do," said farmer André Poirier, whose farmland near Saint-Blaise is under two metres of water.

Officials have scrambled to reassure farmers that wildlife protection officers will apply common sense to collateral fish damage, but it's adding to a stressful spring. Many farmers will be guaranteed to lose money before a single green shoot has poked through the mud.

It's probably too late for swamped land in the Richelieu, Mr. Poirier said.

"Usually all we need is a week of sunshine and we can get our crops in. We're usually done seeding by now. This year, we've barely started, even on land that's not flooded. We haven't had two nice days in a row."

In eastern Saskatchewan, which escaped the brunt of overflowed rivers, but has been soaked by repeated torrential downpours, less than a quarter of seeding is complete. All that water flows toward Manitoba, where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers spilled their banks and Lake Winnipeg is bulging beyond the usual shoreline. Around the Assiniboine, in western Manitoba, less than 10 per cent of seeding is done.

Seeding across the Prairies is usually almost finished by now.

Herm Martens, a farmer in the Red River Valley, said potential crop yields start to drop quickly when seeding is delayed beyond May 20. About half of his farmland was flooded this year.

Crop insurance programs impose seeding deadlines, most of them looming over the next two weeks. The dates match the frost-free window for growing crops in Canada's farm country. For Mr. Martens, some of his crops must be sown as early as Monday, while other fields must be done by June 6. It will be a race to get it all in, he said. Even farmers who manage to beat the deadlines will face likely frost damage in the fall - if seeds manage to sprout through dense mud.

Anxiety is starting to take a toll. Normand Gagnon, who has been farming for 40 years, said at least one of his neighbours in Quebec's Richelieu Valley has been hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

"This will sound harsh, but people are going to start killing themselves," said Mr. Gagnon. About one-third of his land is underwater.

In the Quebec flood zone, where farmers have little experience with inundation, many fear land will be ruined. Experts, along with more experienced Manitoba farmers, say once the trash and tree stumps are removed, land basically returns to normal.

"You would expect contaminants to be diluted. If anything, it's the farmland that often loads the water with nutrients that can harm lakes and rivers," said Francis Zvomuya, a soil scientist at the University of Manitoba.

As for fish, Mr. Martens said his Manitoba neighbours were pulling 50-centimetre pike out of ditches some 12 kilometres from the Red River after a 2005 flood. "They're more of a novelty than anything," he said.

Jacquelin Bisaillon, another farmer in the Richelieu Valley, said on top of overzealous wildlife officers, he's heard neighbours have called police on farmers who are pumping out land. The fear of unknown long-term consequences and uncertainty surrounding aide programs are also adding to anxiety.

"It's a shock to see your home or your land underwater, and on top of that many of us don't really know how a flood works," he said. "We're just overwhelmed."

 

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