ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — The federal agriculture minister and her provincial counterpart said they were both moved to tears hearing about the devastation farmers endured in British Columbia’s recent floods and how those same people found the strength to help each other.
Marie-Claude Bibeau was joined by her provincial counterpart Lana Popham on Friday for a tour of a poultry farm that had been flooded before speaking to the media.
“It’s affected their animals, it affected their own house, and family and communities,” Bibeau said.
“So, it’s the whole community was being affected and even if they are being impacted directly, they still find the strength to help each other. This is very impressive.”
B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said hearing directly from farmers gives a greater sense of the loss.
“And we’ve seen and heard the stories from the farmers who are still in some ways in the middle of this emergency. The loss that has been felt is absolutely profound.”
The pair, along with other politicians, toured the farm wearing blue coveralls and boots as they moved from barn to barn, looking at cleanup operations.
Workers were repairing barns, where the water line from the flooding reached about half a metre up the walls.
Chicks, hatched just this week, were feeding in a nearby barn that hadn’t been damaged by the flooding.
A series of “atmospheric rivers” in mid-November forced thousands of people from their homes and left at least four dead.
About 630,000 chickens, 420 cattle and 12,000 hogs died in the Sumas Prairie, while more than 6,000 dairy cows were transported from affected farms to others to keep them safe from flooding.
Popham said the devastation has stressed the need and importance of a federal partnership to ensure support for the farmers who have fed Canadians for years.
The ministers said visiting the area gave them a first-hand understanding of the situation and priorities.
“We both heard the commitment from people that are literally standing in mud that they just want to figure out a way to fix it and get back to doing what they love,” Popham said.
Bibeau said officials have had many conversations with farmers and their families to identify gaps and find ways to address the most immediate needs while determining how to help in the future.
“The evaluation, we can’t do it overnight, we will keep working together with the community to provide the support that is needed,” she said.
Jeff Spitters, the owner of the chicken farm, said he and other farmers he knows are committed to rebuilding and reopening.
Spitters’ grandfather moved to Canada and worked as a dairy farmer, before his father switched to the poultry industry.
“The fields are a mess,” he said, referencing neighbouring properties. “But this area is a food powerhouse for us.”
However, farmers in other sectors say there are other issues that could prevent some from returning.
Dairy farmers had already been facing a tough future as many had short feed supplies for their animals due to B.C.’s record-breaking heat waves in the summer.
Gary Baars, who owns a dairy farm in the Sumas area of Abbotsford, said the combined effect of fires, heat, flood and inflation, has reduced profit margins.
“Hay prices are high everywhere,” he said. “I kept thinking it was a bit of a bubble, but between inflation, increased fertilizer and fuel prices and a lack of supply, there’s going to be a serious feed shortage.”
Baars said many in the dairy industry have a lot of debt and this past year has been tough on farmers.
“I could definitely see some people saying, ‘You know what, I’m equity rich and cash poor and this is a good time to get out of this racket,’” he said.
Sarah Sache, vice-chair of the BC Dairy Association, said Baars’ concern is one her group is monitoring.
“It’s going to be a turning point for some farms if they continue in the industry,” she said.
Whether farmers continue will likely depend on what stage of their career they’re in, Sache said.
The City of Abbotsford lifted the last of its evacuation orders for the Sumas Prairie area on Friday, meaning all but a few property owners can return home.
Mayor Henry Braun said residents of the area that was once Sumas Lake can now follow those in three other sections of the Prairie who were allowed to return home after floodwaters receded.
— With files from Hina Alam in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2021.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press