Pay-back time for growers assisted by Hay West

Ten years ago, prairie livestock producers were putting their names into a lottery that didn’t cost them a dime but in some cases may have saved their herds.

It was 2002, a year of drought on the Prairies but abundance in Eastern Canada. It was the year of Hay West, brainchild of producer Willard McWilliams of Navan, Ont.

McWilliams once came west to help with the harvest and experienced the warmth of Albertan hospitality.

Remembering that, and how westerners helped his region after an ice storm, he was moved to action after seeing a news report about the severity of the prairie drought.

“It was farmer helping farmer, Canadian helping Canadian, community helping community,” said his son and co-organizer Wyatt McWilliams in an early-November Western Producer story, after the hay drive ended.

“It really makes me proud to be a Canadian farmer.”

That year, eastern Ontario enjoyed a wet spring and hot, sunny summer, also known as ideal hay growing conditions.

Sound familiar? Exactly the same conditions apply out west this year, particularly in Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta.

The shoe is now on the other foot in Ontario, which is experiencing an extremely dry year.

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about Hay East.

It could easily be based on the Hay West model. Its success stemmed from eastern farmers who realized the extent of the western drought and were moved to donate their hay.

That summer, more than 1,800 farmers in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia provided hay.

With help from corporate and government donations and fundraisers across the country, more than 35,000 tonnes of hay were sent to Saskatchewan and Alberta.

At least 20,000 more tonnes were pledged but not shipped before the season ended because of rules requiring that the hay be fumigated for cereal leaf beetle. It eventually became too cold to fumigate.

About 1,000 Saskatchewan and Alberta farmers were chosen to receive hay through a lottery. Ottawa and both national railways provided rail transportation for free, while other corporations stepped up with funding for more rail cars and trucks.

For some western ranchers, the bales of hay made the difference between selling their entire herds and keeping their best cows.

It could be the same situation in the East this year, where there is not enough grass for grazing, not enough hay for baling and not enough corn for feeding.

Prices for round bales have doubled in the past few weeks to nearly $70, and many producers had to start feeding early on in the season.

It’s serious, and livestock producers are desperate, culling herds in some cases. Ontario agriculture minister Ted McMeekin recently asked the federal government to start the process of providing disaster relief.

If there is surplus hay in the West, is someone out there considering a Hay East?

If so, the federal government and the two railways would have to participate, as they did in 2002.

It always seems to be the case that great times for some farmers come at the expense of terrible times for others. That’s certainly true this year, where dry weather in the United States, Russia and other crop-producing countries means better markets for western Canadian crops.

But in Canada, too, producers are struggling. Maybe, if there’s a little extra, someone will pitch in some hay for the home team.

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