By Tom Collins
AVONMORE — Jim Wert estimates he has spent roughly $30,000 to $40,000 in the last five years trying to bring his hydro bills under control.
The Avonmore dairy farmer has invested in variable speed drives for his vacuum and transfer pumps and installed LED lightbulbs that are supposed to use 25 per cent less wattage. He’s also shifted around staff schedules so the feed mixing is done early in the morning and in the afternoon to get around hydro peak periods. That requires extra manpower and isn’t included in his $30,000-$40,000 estimate.
“We’re not operating as efficiently as we could be from a production standpoint,” said Wert. “We’re operating on how to minimize expenses as far as hydro goes.”
Wert, who milks 120 cows, pays about $33,000 a year in hydro bills now, double what he paid five years ago. He knows his bill would have been much higher if he hadn’t invested in all the changes.
Wert, also a councillor for North Stormont Township, says high hydro prices are increasing the divide between rural and urban communities. And while farmers will endure as they have the ability to adjust, Wert is concerned how single families and retirees will be able to survive. Most rural electricity users have the same supplier: Hydro One.
Hydro One prices have soared high enough that North Grenville mayor David Gordon says it is time for farmers to stand up to the province. He pointed to the recent rallies on Parliament Hill organized by Quebec dairy farmers to protest milk imports.
“They have to mobilize to get the attention of the government,” he said. “I advocate farmers become a political unit to get their voice across because their voice isn’t getting across to the government, or something would have been done. They’ve got to get out there and fight. The Ontario Federation (of Agriculture) — how many members do they have? If they mobilize and march on Toronto, I’m sure a few ministers would wake up.”
Even though the OFA is 37,000 strong, Lanark Federation of Agriculture president Ted Letts said there is no appetite among farmers to do a tractor march on Queen’s Park.
“You think you’re going to get the OFA to do something like that, you’d have to hold a gun to them,” he said. “We should be doing something to wake (Ontario government) up that there’s some place other than downtown Toronto and the GTA. We should almost be blocking 401 highways for about a month to get these people to realize what the hell is going on. Farming is (one of) the largest employers in the province of Ontario and they treat us like s—.”
Rob MacDonald, president of the Glengarry Federation of Agriculture, says marching on Queen’s Park won’t accomplish much and says farmers aren’t up for it. They are older and protesting takes time, it costs money and puts wear and tear on the tractors, he said.
“Farmers are two per cent of the population,” he said. “We can’t do much as a group ourselves. It’s the urban people that decide what goes on. Until they are affected, it won’t change anything for us.”
The province has asked consumers to keep energy consumption low, and while most farmers have done so, prices keep going up, he said. At one point, the provincial government said residents were doing too good a job saving electricity so they had to raise hydro prices to make up the shortfall.
“It’s like we’re playing a game with a bunch of kids,” said MacDonald. “As the game proceeds, and they’re losing, they change the rules.”
One Ottawa-area farmer recently shared his hydro bill with federal Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary. The farmer used $5,177.31 in electricity, but the total bill was $71,618.58 thanks to global adjustment, delivery, taxes and other charges. Quebec hydro said that the same usage of electricity in Quebec would cost the farmer $35,700.08. In total, the Ottawa-area farm was charged 20.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That same farm would have been charged 10.4 cents per kWh in Quebec.
Rideau Lakes mayor Ron Holman said hydro shouldn’t be a penalty for businesses. He believes the lack of a provincial strategy is hurting Ontario businesses as companies don’t know how to plan since the provincial government is constantly changing the rules and prices.
“We need a long-term commitment as to what the cost of hydro will be, subject to normal inflation, over the next period of time,” he said. “There has to be some sort of control put on this industry.”
North Grenville mayor David Gordon said that two years ago he met 89- and 90-year-old farmers who had to continue to work in order to pay their hydro bills. High hydro bills also forced a widow to sell her house. Last month, an aging Brockville painter sold his pick-up truck to pay his hydro bill.
“Does that mean you’re going to have to work until you’re 105 just to pay for your hydro?” Gordon said. “It’s a very serious problem because the government doesn’t have a handle on the electricity costs. I think it’s killing the farm community even worse. But farmers are too polite.”