07/31/2012 12:38 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa speeding up process to provide relief for Ontario farmers during drought

Excessively dry conditions in Ontario this summer have prompted Ottawa to speed up a process that provides relief for livestock producers.

Ontario's minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs asked the federal government Tuesday to allow affected farmers to apply sooner for tax breaks that lessen the sting of a bone-dry season.

Assessments for a designation declaring farms part of prescribed drought regions normally happen in September, but federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said he would "absolutely" be giving them relief.

"We'll take up the administration now and do the assessment," he said, speaking after an event in Saskatoon. "There's a 45-day window for that to happen, and that has begun."

Once an area is designated as a drought region, that will allow farmers to defer a portion of various sales to a future tax year.

"Unpredictable weather like we are seeing in Ontario only further highlights the importance for farmers to have and utilize crop insurance," Ritz said later in an email.

"I have instructed Agriculture Canada officials to monitor the situation and work with farmers to support them through this difficult period."

Ted McMeekin, Ontario's minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, visited the Renfrew region — west of Ottawa — Tuesday and said the hot, dry conditions are having an adverse effect on crops, especially in eastern Ontario.

"In certain areas, it's a bit clearer to us that we'll need potentially a special response," he said in an interview.

Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said the Renfrew area was hit particularly hard.

"These are all great things," he said in an interview. "These are all necessary steps to take."

Environment Canada said in Ottawa, where the average rainfall for July is 89 millimetres, only 12 millimetres of rain had fallen as of Monday.

AgriRecovery, a disaster relief framework designed to help in these situations, will not be accelerated. Ritz said the government will move forward with that as quickly as possible, should it be required, but he did not provide specifics of how long it could take.

McMeekin said farmers will be protected from reductions in their AgriStability coverage if they feel their crops are impacted by the dry conditions and lack of rain, or if they are forced to sell livestock due to hay and pasture shortages.

Short of bringing in a troupe of "rain dancers," McMeekin said, nothing can be done to combat drought aside from operating business risk management programs, which the province is already doing.

"Drought has been around for several thousand years," he said. "Sometimes we get lucky, and sometimes we get hit hard."

The federal New Democrats said last week 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 has said. "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. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said 45 per cent is in poor or very poor condition.