A Statistics Canada report that reveals a significant drop in net farm income across the country last year certainly comes as no surprise to anyone connected with the industry, says the executive director of the PEI Federation of Agriculture.
The report showed farm income dropped a whopping 45.1 per cent last year to $3.9 billion and Robert Godfrey said one of the major cause was the weather. Last year produced the worst possible combination of weather imaginable-- a cold wet spring that delayed planting, several frosts during June that killed vulnerable crops just as they were beginning to emerge, prolonged periods of drought during the summer, a cold, wet fall that delayed harvesting resulting in thousands of acres across all commodities being left in the ground and some early snow and heavy frost in October.
"The hurt was widespread over every commodity," he said. "The situation was the same in most parts of the country."
He said the industry can't survive too many years like 2018 and everybody within the Island agriculture sector has their fingers crossed for a brighter picture this year. However, as of late May, only 10-15 per cent of the potato crop had been planted due to rain and cold weather and a lack of sunshine has delayed emergence.
The district director of the National Farmers Union agreed last year was the worst in a long time in terms of growing conditions and Doug Campbell is fearful the impact of climate change may make such growing seasons the norm. Both men said the weather so far has been discouraging but Godfrey said "like most people in this industry, I am an eternal optimist and I think we have turned a corner."
The reduction last year was the highest in percentage terms since 2006. At the same time, farm operating expenses (after rebates) increased 6.5% in 2018 to $50.6 billion—the largest percentage increase since 2012.
Both men said the situation has taken a severe toll on the mental health of farmers. The federation, in conjunction with the province and some private sector supporters. offers an anonymous counseling service geared to the farm community (it is free to federation members and available for a fee to NFU members) and he said there has been a sharp uptake in the number of sessions offered by the three counsellors.
Godfrey noted there were 194 sessions during all of 2018 but the figure for the first five months of this year was 115. He stressed the federation receives no identifying information about any of the clients but they have been told by the counsellors that financial concerns are a frequent topic of concern.
He said there has been a growing willingness to discuss the topic of mental health, not only within the farming community but society in general. He noted the PEI Potato Board included a session on mental health during its winter seminar and a recent report from the Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food makes some positive recommendations, including a national mental health strategy for farmers.
"It can take a lot of courage to pick up the phone and ask for help," the executive director said. "We are doing our best to make sure the support system is there for anybody that seeks help. The three counselors are very passionate and committed to helping producers."