Almost three months after their cattle and hay farm northwest of Merritt, B.C., was flooded by the raging Nicola River on Nov. 15, Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald are still waiting for the government to offer any help. The flood came just three months after they lost 20 per cent of their herd – and all of their rangeland – to the Lytton Creek wildfire.
The MacDonalds were just beginning to recover from the catastrophic fire when the Nicola began to rise last November. In all, they figure they lost $300,000 in irrigation equipment and $450,000 in fencing. Fully five acres of their property washed away downstream, along with 300 tons of hay. “That’s tons – not bales,” Ms. MacDonald says. “And now, the river is pointing directly at our house.”
“We need to stabilize the bank, to save our home,” she adds. “We need a plan to recover some of the land that we’ve lost. The clock is ticking. We need to get that done before the spring melt hits. We’re running out of time.”
Haying season is just around the corner, but the MacDonalds say they have no way to water their fields – their irrigation system needs to be rebuilt from scratch. The point is moot, given their fields are covered in more than a metre of silt and rocks. “None of our hay fields are usable,” Ms. MacDonald sighs. “At this point, I’m not sure how we’re going to feed our herd next year.”
The MacDonalds are infuriated by the sluggish pace of government assistance. “We can’t get any information,” says Mr. MacDonald. “No one can. Everybody’s really tired of it. People are getting angry.”
They say they have been stonewalled every time they try to set up a meeting. Officials tell them they can’t visit the ranch or meet because of COVID-19. “I mean seriously? We’re about to lose our house,” says Ms. MacDonald. “We need some government support behind us. We don’t need it 60 days from now. We need it now. Days are ticking by.”
“We’re going to have to remortgage the house, I guess,” Mr. MacDonald says. “I don’t intend on quitting. I can’t live in town. This is the life that I want to live.”
For farmers and ranchers facing fast approaching deadlines on decisions for the coming season, there is urgency to getting help. So far, there has been no indication from any level of government about details of compensation and what it might cover. On Friday afternoon, however, the province alerted media in B.C. that it is planning to release details of its agricultural recovery program on Monday.
The federal government has pledged $5-billion to B.C. for flood relief under the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program. Under the DFAA, the federal government partially reimburses provincial costs associated with response and recovery. This includes both direct provincial costs and supports provided through programs like B.C.’s Disaster Financial Assistance.
The provincial DFA program is open to B.C. homeowners, renters, businesses, charitable organizations, local governments, Indigenous communities and farmers. It compensates applicants for “essential uninsurable losses,” to a maximum of $300,000. The MacDonalds are hoping for help from the DFA, but also from a separate Agrirecovery program.
Multiple farmers and homeowners have told The Globe and Mail that they applied for DFA months ago, but have not heard when they might receive assistance.
B.C.’s Emergency Management office says it is engaged in “ongoing discussions” with Ottawa regarding further funding needs, and that “Finance Canada expects that additional funding will be provided” to British Columbia. “There is a willingness from the federal government to spend outside of the DFAA.”
The province says it has also provided $3.7-million in emergency relief to help feed livestock for farmers affected by flooding. In a written response to The Globe, B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries says it is working on creating an aid package unique to farmers. The statement said the program is intended to help farmers rebuild animal shelter repairs, clean up and restore barns and fences, and restore agricultural land. It says it hopes to announce details on the program “soon.” The statement was unattributed and no one from the government was made available for an interview.
The statement said “many DFA payments have already been processed,” although no specifics were provided. Because of the “extreme nature” of the flooding, and the surge in applications, claims are taking “longer to process than in the past,” a spokesperson with Emergency Management BC added in an unattributed email. EMBC has increased staffing to try to speed up processing which is taking an average of five weeks.
At the peak of the flooding in November, about 800 farms and 22,000 acres of farmland were under evacuation order in B.C. In all, an estimated 700,000 animals died.
Rob de Pruis, director of consumer and industry relations with for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, explains that there is limited overland flood coverage for farmers living in high-risk, flood hazard areas, including parts of the Nicola Valley. For the Sumas Prairie, which, he notes, was once a lake, overland flood insurance is often not available at all.
While farming structures like 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.
Ms. MacDonald says their BarFX Ranch did not qualify for overland flood insurance because they live on a floodplain. Their trucks and tractors are covered – but the vehicles are about the only thing that wasn’t damaged by the flood.
The MacDonalds are far from alone. Across the province, ranchers and farmers hurt by last year’s flooding echo their frustration.
“We’re going to have to start from scratch again,” says Sumas Prairie blueberry farmer Harry Sidhu, whose farm was ineligible for overland flood coverage. His family’s 87 acres of blueberry fields were submerged beneath about 2½ metres of water for nearly 28 days during flooding this winter.
These were “highly productive fields,” Mr. Sidhu says. “They will have to be ripped out and replaced. There is nothing salvageable there. The plants are gone. They’re going to have to start over from scratch. It’s a huge challenge.”
He estimates it will take 10 years to return to previous production levels.
“This is a catastrophe,” says Mike de Jong, MLA for Abbotsford-West. Farmers and ranchers “need help and they need it now. They don’t need it six months from now. They don’t need it two years from now. They need help now.”
In a letter addressed to B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham, the Saskatoon-based National Farmers Union of Canada echoed the urgency: “The need for help is beyond urgent.”
The ministry notes this was the second time in less than a year that an agricultural relief program has been initiated in B.C. It was triggered the first time in September, and provided around $20-million to B.C. farmers and ranchers hit by record-breaking heat waves, drought and wildfires.
Before the provincial government could even begin dispersing funds, flooding hit the Lower Mainland and the Interior, reflecting the struggle to keep up with the frequency and intensity of disasters as climate change worsens.
Krystine McInnes, who runs a 60-acre organic farm on the Similkameen River in Cawston, the organic farming capital of Canada, has lived through three “100-year” flooding events in the past four years. In the 50 years prior, there wasn’t a single “climate event of note” in the region, she says. Although Ms. McInnes says she was initially able to purchase overland insurance for her farm, she has been embroiled in a four-year legal battle with her insurer, which is refusing to pay for damages incurred in the first flood, in 2018. She is hoping the government will buy her out.
Last fall was the third time in four years that her farm suffered catastrophic damage because of flooding. “Our bank is on the verge of foreclosing,” says Ms. McInnes, who left a career in finance to begin farming a decade ago.
The one-kilometre dike protecting their acreage from the Similkameen was pulverized by the catastrophic November floods. “We don’t have a lot of time. We need a solution locked in place by April. If not, the spring run-off will destroy our property yet again. That’s not a lot of time. We need help now.”
All of it has taken an immense toll. Ms. McInnes, who employs six to 20 workers, depending on the season, has been suffering from migraines, severe depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. She has also had three miscarriages in that time. “My body, mind and spirit are exhausted from being in a constant war zone for four years.”
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