The B.C. government is promising to fast-track support to farms damaged in last November’s floods with interim payments from a new $228-million aid package as farmers face urgent decisions around the spring planting season.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham made the pledge at a news conference on Monday announcing the joint federal-provincial flood response program for the province’s devastated agricultural sector.
”There are some very desperate situations right now, farmers need cash now, and so we’re going to be able to give interim payments quickly and get that cash into their pocket,” Ms. Popham said.
The B.C. government has been criticized for the slow delivery of pandemic relief grants to small business, and for the lack of movement on disaster assistance to the town of Lytton, which was wiped out by wildfires last June.
Ms. Popham said she understands that farmers can’t wait for a slow bureaucratic process to release funds.
The flooding across southern B.C. in mid-November affected 1,100 farms and 15,000 hectares of farmland in Abbotsford, Merritt and Princeton. Ms. Popham said the aid package is designed to fill the gap left by private insurance and other government assistance programs. She estimates that the total damage to the sector amounts to $285-million.
Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, said the Canada-BC Flood Recovery for Food Security Program will help farmers pay for cleanup, repair and restoration of their lands, farm infrastructure, replacement feed for livestock and veterinary care.
“We know the road to recovery will not be easy. But our farmers are not walking this road alone,” she said.
But agriculture industry representatives say they don’t expect farmers to be made whole, and some could be missing farm income for years to come as a result of their losses.
“The devil is in the details,” said blueberry farmer Jason Smith, chair of the BC Blueberry Council. Mr. Smith said the loss of around 300 hectares of blueberry crops will not affect the province’s total production, but it could set some farmers back a decade or more to replace mature plants.
Some farmers may be able to salvage their plants, he said, but those who saw their plants submerged for more than two weeks are now finding that those shrubs won’t come back. Mr. Smith said they may have to wait up to two years to source replacement plants, and then it will be another three years before those shrubs can be harvested.
“I don’t know what level of coverage it is going to provide – does that include the 10 years of lost income?”
While farming structures such as barns, shops and sheds cannot be insured, ranchers and farmers can purchase insurance for their vehicles, tractors and combines, as well as their crops and livestock.
Farmers and ranchers who lost their homes may have to look to other sources for those losses. Many homes were not covered by private insurance because they were built on floodplains, but there is limited assistance available through the province’s disaster residential funding program.
An estimated 700,000 farm animals died in the floods, and Jeremy Dunn, general manager of BC Dairy, said the financial commitment is welcome, but it won’t cover all the losses that farmers have sustained.
“The big challenge for our dairy farms, the home is where a lot of damage is.” Mr. Dunn said. It’s not clear, he said, if farm homes will be covered.
The recovery program will pay for returning flood-affected land and buildings to a safe environment for agricultural production, for the repair of uninsurable essential farm infrastructure, and for the “reasonable repair of on-farm structures such as livestock containment fences.”
While it will take time to work out just what will be covered, Mr. Dunn said hopes the aid comes quickly. “Farmers will need to see some money here before the spring freshet, before the spring planting season. It’s February. The money will need to be with farmers by April at the latest. The bills are piling up.”
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