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Alberta A ‘lot of sad people’ in the corn capital of Canada after hailstorm wipes out cult favourite crop

Corn farmer James Molnar and his daughter Julianne, 10, survey what is left of their crop near Barnwell, Alta.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Jenn and James Molnar have a dollhouse produce stand just off Highway 3 in southern Alberta. It is brown, with lacy curtains in the windows. The Molnars grow corn – Taber corn – and their cobs have a cult following.

The Molnars were three days into harvest when an eight-minute hailstorm wiped out their crop in early August. The next day, they went down to their roadside stand to sell what they managed to get off the stalks prior to the storm.

“There [were] probably 40 customers, standing all in a line," Mr. Molnar said. "It was like a funeral procession. Nobody talked. It was just silent.”

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The Molnars are one of the largest producers of corn in Western Canada.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

The Molnars’s stand is across the highway from Barnwell, about eight kilometres west of Taber. The corn grown there is a Western Canadian delicacy, and the Molnars are one of the largest producers of the summer staple. The hailstorm, however, means there is a severe shortage of authentic Taber corn this year. Customers lined up that day for two reasons: To send their condolences and to secure a bag or two of Taber corn in the face of famine.

Folks from Farm Credit Canada, which specializes in agriculture financing, were among the waiting.

“They brought [corn] orders from their office and they basically told us we don’t have to worry, whatever they have to do, they will make it work for us," Ms. Molnar said. “It was a nice feeling that the community was supporting us.”

Taber is about 270 kilometres southeast of Calgary, home to about 8,000 people, and plays host to a three-day celebration dubbed Cornfest every August. This year’s shortage of Taber corn meant organizers had to make some adjustments, but the party is still going ahead. Indeed, hundreds of people lined the streets in Taber for the kickoff parade on Thursday, with kids running to grab lollipops people were throwing from floats.

Cornfest without the Molnar's Taber corn wasn't the same.

Jeff McIntosh

But the parade still happened on Thursday.

Jeff McIntosh

But still, Cornfest, without loads of Taber corn, isn’t right. “It doesn’t feel like the typical end of summer,” Tayna Meahan said while driving a red pickup truck that served as a parade float for the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur and Heritage Museum. “It just isn’t the same.”

The Molnars, who have a 17-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, usually produce between 780,000 and 840,000 ears of corn each year and harvest their 20-hectare field by hand. They grow nine varieties – Temptress is ready first; Vision is their favourite – which allows them to produce fresh corn over about 50 days. Mr. Molnar reckons he eats six cobs of corn a day during harvest, snacking and checking quality. He prefers them raw.

The family employs about nine people during harvest, and the hailstorm meant layoffs. “We’ve got a lot of sad people,” Mr. Molnar said. They spend about $60,000 to $70,000 on labour each harvest. Mr. Molnar said they will lose about $250,000 this year, even after collecting insurance.

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The Molnars also lost their nine-hectare pumpkin patch.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

The Molnars lost their entire corn crop and their nine-hectare pumpkin patch. “It was probably my nicest crop in 14 years of growing pumpkin,” Mr. Molnar said, looking down at the pellet holes in the rotting plants.

Some Taber corn producers, however, were spared from complete devastation. Taber’s Cornfest still has some Taber corn. It also has exceptional imposters.

Oaklane Farming had a produce stand on the side of the parade route, with bags of fresh corn on the tables. Oaklane is a local operation, grows the same types of corn as the Molnars, but the vendors said some do not consider Oaklane’s corn to be Taber corn because it is just south of the quasi-official Taber corn region. Corn connoisseurs insist only corn grown within the Municipal District of Taber can be called Taber corn. Merrill Harris, the M.D.'s reeve, said the M.D. will issue a certificate of authentication if corn growers in the area want one. (The Molnars made their own. They are in the M.D.).

Mr. Molnar, at a town hall in Lethbridge earlier this week, asked Devin Dreeshen, the province’s minister of agriculture and forestry, if Alberta would declare a state of emergency because of the crop loss in the region. Mr. Dreeshen did not answer directly, but said in order for the province to make such a declaration, local authorities would have to move first. Lac Ste. Anne County, in north-central Alberta, declared an agriculture emergency earlier this month because of too much precipitation.

Crops across Alberta are, overall, in good shape. Roughly 67 per cent of Alberta’s crops are in good or excellent condition, compared with the five-year average of 60 per cent, according to the province’s most recent crop report, dated Aug. 13.

Mr. Molnar cried for about an hour the night of the storm. He still has rough days, but the third-generation farmer is already thinking about next year’s Cornfest. “We’ll be back next year.”

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