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Ontario corn farmers wait for the million-dollar rain

July 12, 2012 - Toronto, ON - It was set to be bumper year for corn. The dry winter left fields ready for planting by mid-April. The green stalks shot up even under cloudless skies, some maturing abnormally early. But the rain didn’t come.

And one of the warmest, driest winters on record turned into one of the warmest, driest springs, leaving crops in Ontario dangerously parched at their most vulnerable point: the pollination stage.

The potential yield of the crop relies entirely on whether it rains over the next 10 days, says Greg Stewart, a corn specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

“Corn really only has one opportunity to flower or to pollinate . . . it’s not like corn can grow throughout the summer and throw out an ear whenever it feels like it.”

Mother Nature, on the other hand, has struck often and unexpectedly this year in a roller-coaster of a growing season for farmers across the country.

The dry warmth that grain farmers welcomed during seeding has stretched into drought.

March’s record-breaking heat brought apple, cherry and plum trees into bloom, only for several April flash freezes to kill the blossoms, devastating farms across Ontario.

Meanwhile, farmers on the Prairies battled a soaking wet spring to plant crops now flourishing in an unusual haze of heat and humidity.

But unlike some of the farmers in the drought-stricken American Corn Belt who have already watched their fields shrivel up and die — Ontario corn farmers are at a cliffhanger.

Will their million-dollar rain come in time?

The perfect rain would be a “weekend-ruining” steady downpour that can soak into the hard, parched earth, says Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada,

However, that’s not what Phillips is seeing in the forecast. Instead the days keep getting hotter, with a chance of showers on the weekend.

“I don’t even want to think about that,” says farmer Don Kenny.

On his 1,200-acre farm near Ottawa, the corn plants have been curling their leaves tightly during the day to preserve moisture.

Just like Southern Ontario, the Ottawa Valley has seen record desert-like weather.

Still, Kenny remains firmly optimistic.

“We’re surviving and doing pretty good. Providing the rain comes in the next 10 days, we’ll be having an above-average crop,” he said.

Across the province, sporadic storms have granted patches of relief to some farms.

Mark Brock’s fields in Perth County, near Stratford, snagged some thunderstorms that rolled off Lake Huron. But drive a few kilometres north and it’s bone-dry soil once more, he says.

“Every bead of moisture out there, every bead of precipitation has been sucked up by the very dry atmosphere,” said Phillips.

The arid conditions are even worse south of the border along the U.S. Midwest Corn Belt. The scorching drought led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to slash the region’s corn yield estimates by 12 per cent on Wednesday. It’s the largest cut in memory, according to the chairman of USDA’s World Agriculture Outlook Board.

In response to the grim forecasts, corn prices have risen 34 per cent in the past four weeks.

That’s more dollar signs to hang on the rain for Ontario farmers.

“If commodity prices go up, because (the Midwest) continues to be dry and we get rain, we will benefit,” said John Cowan, vice-president of strategic development at the Grain Farmers of Ontario.

The Prairies also stand to gain from the double blessing of big crops and high prices.

Their cereals, wheat and canola in particular are thriving, though farmers are hoping for a long stretch of warm, dry weather after the third-wettest spring in 65 years. For the moment, they are getting an atypical blast of heat and humidity.

As the crops begin to flower “the heat wave is definitely helping to bring them along,” says Daphne Cruise, a regional crop specialist at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. She is hoping the humidity will ease the effects of the searing sun.

For the next 10 days, though, it’s the Ontario grain farmers that will be watching the skies — hoping for Mother Nature to flout the norm once more.

“You’ve got to be a producer to know what it feels like (when it finally rains),” said Kenny, wistfully recalling rain clouds he saw on a recent drive to Hamilton.

“But we’re positive that the rain will come to pollinate our corn and flower our beans. We have to look at the positive side, right?”