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Excerpts from Canadian agriculture at a glance 1999

How farmers weathered Ice Storm '98

by Roland Beshiri, Statistics Canada

During the early morning of January 5, 1998, Nature hit the St. Lawrence River Valley with a storm of unprecedented impact. A warm low-pressure weather system from the Gulf of Mexico collided with a stationary cold Arctic high-pressure air mass to create an ideal combination of layered air masses at just the right temperatures. Together they produced a mixture of ice and supercooled liquid (that is, it remains liquid below the freezing point) that covered colder objects on the ground with a veneer of solid ice.

Over the next five days, two more southerly air systems pushed north over southern Ontario (as far west as Kitchener and Muskoka) and south-western Quebec, and continued east over New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The American states of New York, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire were also hit.

Areas south of Montréal and upper New York State received up to 100 mm (millimetre) of freezing precipitation. As damage and losses increased, the storm created a dazzling display of crystallized beauty—an ironic reminder of Nature's power.

Record numbers of people affected
No other recorded storm in Canadian history deposited so much freezing precipitation over such a large area—about 176,700 km2 (square kilometre) (an area larger than the three Maritime provinces) received over 20 mm of freezing precipitation.

In Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia about 7.6 million people, or about 25% of Canada's population, lived in the area where 20 mm or more of freezing precipitation accumulated. About 20,000 rural homes and 1,300 farms were in the southwestern Quebec area hit with 100 mm of freezing precipitation. About 2 million of the people affected by the storm were rural and small-town residents. Another 1.4 million people in the northeastern United States felt the storm's effect.

Left powerless
Over 1,300 steel transmission towers toppled under the weight of the ice and almost 35,000 wooden utility poles were brought down. Some Ontario residents were without power for 21 days; in Quebec, the hardship lasted up to 32 days. Rebuilding the hydro-electrical overhead wire system became an urgent priority. Almost 80% of the people living in areas that received 40 mm or more of freezing precipitation lost their electrical power for some time during the storm.

Farmers had special problems
While the electrical loss was devastating for everyone, rural communities were without power longest. The dairy and maple industries were particularly hard hit.

Nearly one-quarter of all dairy cows in Canada (274,000) were in the affected area. About 23,800 farms were hit with over 40 mm of freezing precipitation. Ninety percent of eastern Ontario's and about one-quarter of southwestern Quebec's dairy farmers were without electricity at some time.

Many eastern Ontario farmers, accustomed to a stable power supply, were unprepared for such an emergency. Many farmers dealt with the power loss by buying or sharing a generator. When the local supply of generators quickly ran out, more arrived from elsewhere in Canada and from as far away as Georgia, Texas and California.

Without power, the animals suffered and the modern automated farm became a collection of useless machinery. Without regular milking, feeding and plentiful water, the animals lost weight and were susceptible to disease, dehydration and stress, conditions that could lead to birthing problems and reduced milk production. The inability to maintain cleanliness standards led to high bacteria counts on both equipment and animals. Increased humidity or excessive heat, and drafts from poor ventilation increased the incidence of pneumonia.

Of course, not only farms were without electricity; without power, local milk processors were also incapacitated. Some milk was dumped—about 2.3 million L (litre) in Ontario and about 3.3 million L in Quebec—a loss of over $3 million.

The dairy industry adjusted to the effects of the storm and reduced its losses by diverting 1 million L of milk from Ontario to a processing facility in Michigan and 2.5 million L from Quebec to processing facilities in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Some milk that had been destined for the "fluid" market (that is, milk for drinking) was salvaged for industrial uses (for example, for cheese and powdered milk).

January's monthly volume of milk production actually increased slightly in Ontario and was unchanged in Quebec compared with the previous month. Consumers themselves felt little impact from the storm: Enough milk was already available when the storm struck to easily satisfy consumer demand.

Maple syrup producers endured great losses
In 1997 maple syrup production was a $125-million industry in Quebec and Ontario. Quebec usually produces about 90% of Canada's maple production and Ontario about 5%. (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia produce the remaining 5%.)

In Quebec an estimated 2,500 maple syrup producers, with about 30% of the province's 25 million to 26 million maple taps, were in the storm's path. (One tree can have from one to four "taps," the spigot used to collect the sap.) The maple syrup producers of the Montérégie area and the Eastern Townships were hit hardest. Ten percent of the trees there were seriously affected and considered destroyed—representing about $5 million in lost income.

About 25% of Ontario's 1.2 million maple tree taps were hit by the ice storm. Estimates put losses in maple syrup production at up to 50% of eastern Ontario's $4 million per year industry over the next 10 years. Where damage was severe, some losses may be felt for up to 40 years. Significant income generated from spin-offs associated with the industry, such as tourism, will also be lost.

A costly clean-up
The ice sheared treetops, and the branches pulled down and buried the plastic tubing that collects the sap from the trees. The maple bush became dangerous for clean-up and restoration. To make matters worse, the clean-up had to be done quickly, as warm temperatures caused the sap to run early. Restoring damaged trees and equipment will cost an estimated $3 million in eastern Ontario. Quebec estimates its cost at about $30 million.

The aftermath
After three weeks in Ontario and over a month in Quebec the last of the rural homes regained power. Throughout the storm and for weeks after, many stories were told of the spirit of the rural community: generosity, courage, compassion, patience and determination. Many people had to endure the stress and trauma of leaving their unheated homes and moving to shelters. But most farmers remained isolated on their farms to care for their livestock. For everyone, the sound of tree limbs snapping under the weight of the ice was a constant reminder that this was a storm to be reckoned with.

While prices for their products barely showed an economic impact from the storm, many farmers will have long-term economic consequences. They must rebuild their barns, greenhouses and other structures that were crushed or damaged by the weighty ice. Others have had to replenish their livestock or replant their apple orchards, raspberries, and Christmas trees.

Much has been learned from this storm about rural emergency preparedness, planning and action. Many farms and many rural homeowners now have a generator tucked safely in their barn or shed. Rural communities and farmers have a new respect for the powers of Nature and a new confidence that they are better prepared for the next time she unleashes her destructive powers.

Data for this article came from the 1996 Census of Agriculture and other Statistics Canada sources; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; Canadian Geographic; Dairy Farmers of Ontario; Dairy Farmers of Quebec; Emergency Preparedness Canada Digest; Environment Canada; Hydro Québec; Insurance Council of Canada; New Brunswick Hydro; Nova Scotia Emergency Measures Organization; Ontario Hydro; Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs; Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers. Photos on pages 184 and 186, by Dave Chan and Julie Oliver, The Ottawa Citizen.

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