The Jungle Farm owners hope a silver lining can be found in the devastating hailstorm clouds that pumelled their market garden farm twice in less than a month.
Leona Staples believes some good can come out of the heart-breaking losses if their experience — and those of other specialty crop farmers — can create momentum to extend crop insurance coverage to them.
An Aug. 1 hailstorm that produced a Canadian record-sized hailstone in Markerville only a few kilometres west of The Jungle Farm laid waste to the popular destination for thousands of strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and vegetable lovers every summer.
That devastating storm followed a July 8 hailstorm that ripped through the area, shredding young strawberry plants and taking a toll on onions, leeks, cucumbers, beets and potatoes and 900 acres of grain crops on the farm, about 10 km northeast of Innisfail.
“I’d say (the July storm) was one of the worst we’ve seen in 25 years,” said Staples, who runs the family farm with husband Blaine with help from sons Lewis, Richard and Gerald. “In the July storm, we lost all of our summer strawberries. We maybe picked five per cent of what could have been picked off 20 acres.
“(The Aug. 1 storm) supersedes that one. This one was far worse than that previous one.”
The hailstones were so big they punched through metal roofs on farm buildings, damaged farm equipment, destroyed greenhouses and smashed windows.
“We don’t have a window left on the west side of our house.”
Leona said they will be lucky if they salvage 20 per cent of the 20 acres of fall strawberries that would have been ready for picking in a few weeks. The jury is still out on how well cucumbers, zucchinis, beets, leeks, onions and other vegetables can bounce back.
Despite the damage, many people have travelled to the farm to pick what strawberries they can. But visitors who previously left with up to 20 pounds (nine kg) of strawberries are gathering only one to three pounds. Greenhouse raspberry baskets were available for sale Monday and Tuesday and strawberries that were grown under cover are available and the general store has jams, pickles and preserves available.
“We’ve had a real outpouring of public support.”
The Staples will be updating their Facebook page every week to let people know what is available.
The repercussions of the extreme weather extend far beyond the Staples family and their farm. Nearly a dozen students hoped to make money through their summer jobs. Most had to be let go — some before they even got started — after the July storm.
Half a dozen seasonal workers from Mexico counted on their summer income to help support their families. With almost no work to do now, they had to go back home months ahead of schedule.
And The Jungle Farm is only one of many market gardens that have suffered huge weather-related losses over the years.
All of this only reinforces the need for crop insurance for those growing specialty crops, said Leona. Those running Alberta’s market gardens, and other specialty crop growers, have been lobbying for years for an extension of the kind of insurance available to other crop producers.
“If I could pass along a message … it’s the importance of this industry. The market garden industry has really become the face of agriculture because people can come and be directly involved in agriculture when they come to our farm.”
The industry also provides an important opportunity for young farmers at a time when land costs and the lure of jobs off the farm mean fewer and fewer children of farmers are choosing to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
“What’s wonderful about this industry is that somebody can start really small,” she said. “It’s a very affordable way of moving into the agricultural industry and growing food if that was a passion that someone had.”
“We need to support this industry to grow larger. One of the things that is going to be critical in the growth of this particular industry is having risk mitigation and having the ability to have a backstop.”
The Staples have had more than two decades to build up their business and set aside money in case of disaster. Young farmers do not have the same resources, which makes insurance all the more critical as they start out.
Leona has already spoken with Alberta Agriculture Minister Nate Horner, who has been sympathetic to her concerns and has encouraged her efforts to reach out to the thousands who have visited her farm to lobby agriculture officials and their local MLAs to extend crop insurance coverage.
“It’s possible to do it. It’s been done in other provinces,” she said. “We have friends in Ontario who have crop insurance for their strawberries.”
Market gardens are also more important than ever at a time when both food security and food scarcity are becoming bigger issues, she said. For more information on the farm and hours go to thejunglefarm.com.