Many farmers along Lake Manitoba have recovered from the 2011 deliberate flooding of their land, but some continue to shoulder costs because the water hasn't receded to permit regrowth of hay for their livestock. Last year, those farmers were out, the province estimates, $3 million to $5 million, the cost of having to buy feed or move their livestock to the feed.
Those claims for 2012, covering about 150,000 hay or pasture acres, are being held up in dispute between the provincial and federal governments, which have different terms for disaster assistance to producers. The basic farm-recovery program, to be cost-shared 60/40 by the federal/provincial governments, was designed to get business back up and running. The problem is, however, Ottawa insists its terms were written for one year of compensation, which ill suits the circumstances some Lake Manitoba farmers are facing.
When the province pushed massive volumes of water out of the rising Assiniboine River, through the Portage Diversion and into the lake, it sacrificed the homes, property and farms of residents along and near Lake Manitoba. Initially, $180 million was paid out to the farmers alone in 2011, some of which was cost-shared by Ottawa.
Manitoba is hoping to recover a greater share of that cost -- an immediate payout program that put $50 million into the hands of producers has not been cost-shared, the province says. That remains an issue under negotiation.
The continuing concern, however, is Ottawa's refusal to compensate through its agriculture-recovery program for the costs borne by many livestock farmers who last year had to buy feed or move their cattle to feed because their land's native or tame hay couldn't grow back. About 40 per cent of the total 380,000 acres covered in 2011 remain largely or partly covered by water.
Disaster assistance should be a short-term and immediate compensation plan, and in the case of farmers, help to put the business back on its feet. Further, producers should be encouraged to take advantage of permanent insurance programs that cover losses that are unusual but predictable.
Lake Manitoba producers have been loath to buy into the government insurance for their hay acreage, and many argue the flooding that has taken their land out of production could not have been foreseen, so was not a risk to buffer against.
The big question is how many years those same farmers' lands will be out of production. From that point of view, the federal government is appropriately reluctant to extend emergency assistance to long-term payouts. But in the case of Lake Manitoba and the sacrifices foisted upon producers in 2011, it is clear full compensation is the appropriate deal.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz must be careful with federal cash. Mr. Ritz must also see the extraordinary circumstance to which disaster assistance should respond. The cost of continuing losses are minor, relative to the size of the damage initially done and total payouts by the two levels of government.
Negotiation must recognize the unique distress for 2012. Continuing calls for compensation, however, will need the harder decisions of sorting farmers' claims into programs better suited to acreage that is now marginal or unlikely to return to production.