The devastating flooding in the Fraser Valley will have long-lasting effects on food supply from the agricultural heartland of British Columbia, home of some of Canada’s most significant food production.
As entire communities in the Fraser Valley found themselves underwater this week, among the hardest hit was Abbotsford, where most of the province’s eggs, chicken and milk come from. Farmers there were subject to increasingly urgent evacuation orders, forcing many to abandon their farms and animals in a desperate scramble for higher ground.
Even those who weren’t evacuated now face weeks, if not months, of disruptions, after mudslides and flooding cut off crucial highways and road access to much of the region.
“It’s millions and millions and millions of dollars of damage,” said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley. “It’s incredible destruction.”
About 60 dairy farms in the Fraser Valley were told to evacuate, officials at the BC Dairy Association said. And with transportation made impossible, dairy farmers in the area were told to dump their milk.
Earlier this week at Vanderveen Farm in Abbotsford, Janelle Vanderveen walked into her family’s dairy barn to find several inches of water on the ground. For the first few days, the damage seemed minor and she assumed the flooding was localized. The family even opened up their farm to others in the area who had been displaced.
But by Tuesday night, the waters were rising dramatically and there was no way to get their 80-plus cattle out. They were gutted to have to leave them all behind, driving to nearby Chilliwack to stay with family.
“We had no idea if we’d be able to come back in a day, two days, or who knows,” she said, her voice breaking.
Holger Schwichtenberg, a second-generation dairy farmer, considers himself lucky. His farm in Agassiz, B.C., remains dry. He spent much of the week helping his neighbours, offering temporary housing to livestock and helping to co-ordinate the transport of supplies. Still, he was forced to dump his milk into the manure pit on the weekend.
“It is not easy watching your milk go down the drain,” said Mr. Schwichtenberg, who is also chair of the BC Dairy Association. “It’s a gut-wrenching feeling.”
A majority of B.C.’s chicken and egg production also takes place in the affected area. About 60 poultry farms were in the evacuation zone, according to officials from the Chicken Farmers of Canada and the BC Egg Marketing Board. That includes 290,000 laying hens – almost 10 per cent of the three million laying hens in B.C. It also includes 22 broiler-chicken farms.
“We do know that some of those farms have already experienced significant flooding and some loss,” said Lisa Bishop-Spencer, a spokesperson for Chicken Farmers of Canada. She said farmers are still scrambling to assess the full impact of the loss.
“We know this means that there are going to be significant disruptions to the supply chain,” Ms. Bishop-Spencer said.
“You have to think a few days ahead: Are we going to have enough feed for the birds? Are we going to have enough electricity? Are we going to be able to get them to processing? How are they going to get there?”
The disruptions caused by the flooding only exacerbate existing food-supply issues already caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent labour shortages, Prof. Newman said. The immediate impact, she said, will be higher food prices – across the region, and possibly across the country.
“It’s going to take a while to reroute everything. Some of these major roads are going to be closed for a while,” she said. “That could take months.”
With climate change, she only expects such incidents to increase. “I think for a lot of people climate change is still pretty theoretical, still. But here, it’s very real,” she said. “It’s feeling very real in B.C. today.”
In Abbotsford, Ms. Vanderveen’s husband, Matt, was able to return to their dairy farm Wednesday morning to survey the damage.
The water held steady overnight. And though there’s flooding in one of the barns, it’s not too deep, she said. The cattle all survived.
“We’ve worked a lot of years to build this herd,” she said. “I thought everything was going to be drowned by today. I know a lot of other neighbours were thinking the exact same thing.”
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