07/24/2012 01:27 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Drought: NDP Warn Food Prices Set To Skyrocket With Dry Crops In Eastern Provinces

OTTAWA - Stand far enough away and the fields of Debra Pretty-Straathof's family farm appear green and lush.

But a closer look reveals parched earth littered with dead or dying leaves, and crops whose growth has been stunted by severe heat and drought.

The conditions are much the same on neighbouring farms in the eastern Ontario town of Arnprior, close to an hour's drive west of Ottawa, Pretty-Straathof said Tuesday.

The small town in Renfrew County is typical of others across the province that have been starved for rain during one of the worst droughts in recent memory.

"Where we are, near Arnprior, we've had like 10 drops a couple of weeks ago, but we haven't really had anything since the third week of June," Pretty-Straathof said.

"Up until a week or so before that, we were getting timely showers. And then it just stopped. And so the crops just stopped."

Pretty-Straathof, an Ontario Federation of Agriculture executive, has invited the federal and provincial agriculture ministers to Renfrew County to see for themselves how the drought has wreaked havoc on farmers' livelihoods.

"We have a small window of opportunity for maybe some improvement," she said, "but we're talking about an improvement in a bad situation. We're not talking about moving to a good situation."

The federal New Democrats warned Tuesday that the price of food is set to soar as farmers in eastern Canada watch their crops wither and die.

NDP MP Malcolm Allen described parts of southern Ontario as a wasteland, where many crops have been damaged too badly to bounce back.

"If you look at parts of southwestern Ontario, it looks like a desert," he told a news conference. "The corn is no higher than six inches, and it's burnt. There's no saving that corn."

Farmers in Western Canada, however, haven't been as hard hit as their eastern counterparts — and as a result, they're reaping the rewards of higher grain prices.

But as bad as things are in Canada, it's even worse south of the border. The extreme drought baking America's breadbasket to a crisp recently sent corn prices soaring to a record-high US$8 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Prices could rise even higher as more corn crop withers in the United States, the world's biggest corn grower and exporter. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 45 per cent is in poor or very poor condition, up from 38 per cent a week ago.

Soybeans are also being hard hit, with more than a third in poor or very poor condition.

The situation is so dire that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has appealed for divine intervention.

"I get on my knees every day and I'm saying an extra prayer now," Vilsack said last week. "If I had a rain prayer or rain dance I could do, I would do it."

The NDP's Allen isn't looking to the heavens for help. But he and his colleague Ruth Ellen Brosseau are calling on Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to do more to reassure drought-stricken farmers.

But Ritz's office said the government has several programs in place to help farmers mitigate and manage the financial impact of weather-related events, such as drought.

"Unpredictable weather like we are seeing in Ontario only further highlights the importance for farmers to have and utilize crop insurance," said Ritz, through his spokesman Jeff English.

"While it is too early to tell to what degree producers will be affected by the dry growing conditions, our government has asked Agriculture Canada officials to monitor the situation and work with farmers to support them through this difficult period."

English said it's up to the provinces to ask Ottawa for help through a federal-provincial financial assistance program. So far, none of the provinces have made such a request.

A spokesman for Ontario Agriculture Minister Ted McMeekin said the province and its Crown agency Agricorp are working with farmers to provide technical advice and help them understand what programs available to them.

"While it is too early to know the full implications of the current dry conditions, Agricorp has allocated resources to making sure farmers have the information they need to make business decisions," Mark Cripps said in an email.

"The ministry is continuing to monitor the situation and while we have not formally engaged the federal government at this time, we are providing updates to Minister Ritz's office and providing technical information to (Agriculture Canada) on an ongoing basis."

As for Pretty-Straathof, she's keeping her fingers crossed for rain.

"If we don't get some rain immediately, we're toast."

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