In theory, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – known as the bread basket of Europe – could benefit Southwestern Ontario farmers by driving up crop prices.
The catch is the war also is choking the supply of fertilizer, driving up input costs for all crops.
“It’s given us an opportunity and made it impossible for us to take advantage of that opportunity,” said Peter Johnson, an agronomist with Real Agriculture who grows wheat, corn and soybeans near Lucan.
“There should be an increase in the price of wheat. . . simply because there will be a shortage globally,” said Peggy Brekveld, a dairy farmer in Murillo, in northern Ontario, who is the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
But, she adds, Ontario growers already feeling the pinch because of the impact of inflation on expenses such as fuel. And because of the looming fertilizer shortage, Brekveld believes this year’s growing season will not be like previous ones.
This year’s crop of wheat was planted after the fall harvest last year. It soon will emerge, and most of it is harvested in July. In a typical year, Ontario growers plant about a million acres of wheat, Johnson said.
“Obviously, we weren’t expecting to have this type of issue present itself,” Brendan Byrne said of the unprovoked Russian assault that has laid waste to cities and the countryside in Ukraine.
Byrne, who farms near Essex, is the chair of the Grain Farmers of Ontario, an umbrella group representing 28,000 growers. He said most farmers in autumn order and pay for about half the fertilizer they will use on their crops the next year. Then, once the season is underway – right about now – they get the rest of the supply.
Farmers use three main types of fertilizer: phosphorous, nitrogen and potash. Some of it comes from Russia, Belarus and China, which already restricted its exports last year.
“We were concerned on the fertilizer market and the pricing in the fall,” Byrne said.
What Southwestern Ontario farmers face is a massive hike in costs. For starters, there’s a 35 per cent surcharge on Russian goods. “There’s a tariff at play on anything that comes out of Russia into Canada,” Byrne said. And that’s if the supplies arrive at all, and aren’t turned around when their boats reach our country.
“There’s some uncertainty as to whether (fertilizer supplies will) be delivered or not,” he said.
Associations that lobby on behalf of growers are hoping the federal government will come to their aid. “They’re looking for potentially that fertilizer purchase orders before March 3 would be exempt from the tariffs,” Brekveld said.
If they aren’t, she said farmers will face dilemmas like “Do I grow a crop that requires less fertilizer? Do I use less fertilizer on it and get less of a crop?”
Another option, Johnson said, is killing the wheat in the ground with a herbicide, then switching those acres to another crop, a risky strategy which would mess with how crops are rotated from year to year.
“It’s a very stressful time for farmers because of this. We’re still in a day-to-day situation,” Johnson said. “We’re sort of looking at having a plan B and a plan C.”
All three famers say they feel for their counterparts in Ukraine. Byrne learned recently growers in the war-torn country were warned not to use their tractors after dark because the lights from the farm machinery could attract Russian drone strikes.
“You hope for the best for those people there,” he said.