As if it hasn’t already been a hard enough year for the agricultural industry, add a wallop of late April snow and frost to deal another blow to some Southwestern Ontario farmers.
Among the most impacted by last week’s snowfall are ginseng farmers, with the snow taking down newly erected shade covers on farms in Brant, Norfolk and Oxford counties.
“It’s April 20 and we had six inches of snow,” said Rebecca Coates, executive director of the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association. “It’s something we’re certainly not used to, but our growers are definitely aware of Mother Nature.”
The damage could result in stunted crop growth, or in a worst-case scenario, the death of plants.
Ginseng is a labour-intensive crop that can take about five years of maintenance before it’s ready for harvest. The root — widely known for its medicinal properties — grows well in the sandy soil north of Lake Erie.
Shade structures have to be erected over the ginseng to filter sunlight and mimic the forest canopy under which ginseng naturally grows.
With warm weather in early April, many ginseng farmers rushed to get their shades up earlier than usual to protect the plants from the sun.
It was work made more difficult by delays in getting temporary foreign workers into the province. The workers continue to face setbacks amid travel and quarantine restrictions during the pandemic.
But those shade structures aren’t designed to withstand the weight of heavy snow.
The snowfall on April 21 triggered the collapse of many shade structures, effectively smothering hundreds of acres of ginseng.
“Not only does it just take the screens down, the posts now snap, the anchors in the ground rip out,” Coates said. “It’s a real mess. . . . There is a risk that the crops would be completely lost.”
The full extent of the damage won’t be known until farmers finishing repairing their downed screens.
And there’s another problem: If farmers can’t get the screens up quickly enough, and warm weather moves in, the heat created under the black shade cloth could cook the plants, said Tillsonburg-area farmer Glen Gilvesy.
“The farmers have taken another kick,” he said. “What we have to do is try to tighten the belts up a bit and just go forward.”
Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, said frost and temperatures below zero posed a greater risk for fruit and vegetable farmers than snow did, but that most likely made it out of this week unscathed.
“There might be some pockets of damage in low-lying areas, but it’s too early to say,” he said. “For the most part, most of the field vegetables and crops aren’t in the ground yet, so that’s a good thing.”
This week’s snow marks another setback for the approximately 150 ginseng farmers in Ontario, who have already faced their fair share of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario ginseng growers typically export more than eight million pounds of the root each year, but Coates said this storm will “significantly” affect that yield.
Farmers have also had to sit on harvests from 2019 and 2020 because of run-off effects from COVID-19 shutdowns. More than 95 per cent of Canada’s ginseng is exported — much of it going to China — but that’s been stunted by pandemic-related disruptions to international trade.
“We started to feel the hit a lot sooner than others, primarily because COVID hit China first,” Coates said. “That’s really when we started to see China shut down. . . . As soon as the borders closed, obviously our buyers can’t get here to look at the root and purchase.”
Coates said this week’s snowfall and the lingering trade challenges speak to the need for enhanced protections for farmers, including improvements to AgriStability insurance programs.
“It’s been a real challenging year,” she said. “Farmers are so resilient. They keep getting up and dusting their boots off and getting back in there.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.