By Connor Lynch
ST. EUGENE — At its peak, the ice storm of 1998 knocked out power to half of Quebec’s population and over 1 million Ontarians. Rural communities were hit hardest, especially dairy farms. Animals lost weight, were susceptible to disease and bacteria outbreak, and a lot of dairy machinery and processing became dead weight until the farmer got his hands on portable power. Without it, milk couldn’t be stored and animals couldn’t be milked.
Farmers learned their lesson and just about everyone acquired generators. Ontario’s ice storm last month covered a much wider area over four days but had much less impact and was easily weathered by well-prepared farmers.
At its peak on April 14, the storm had knocked out power for 120,000 Hydro One customers across the province. In Eastern Ontario, there were 64 power outages, with multiple outages around Limoges. Some power poles snapped in half and many trees lost limbs.
Ralph LeRoy, who farms at St. Eugene, saw power flicker on and off four times in one day. He bought a $10,000 PTO-driven generator after the 1998 ice storm and his tractor was ready to power the generator the night before the forecasted ice.
Without a generator, dairy farmers, with or without robots, are in a bad situation. Milking 100 cows by hand is at best a difficult task, LeRoy said. Milk needs to be cooled, and in LeRoy’s old barn, without electricity, the sidewall in his barn deflates, letting heat escape and in the middle of winter, he risks his animals getting very cold very fast.
LeRoy was out of power for 16 days during the 1998 storm. Others were out for 21 days, he said.
Chicken farmer Shawn Wiley, who farms with his father Donald at Vankleek Hill, was loading his second-ever batch of broiler chickens the night of April 15 when the power flicked off. They only started raising chickens in January.
Lack of power is a serious problem on a chicken farm. Without ventilation running 24/7, animals can quickly overheat and die, or ammonia in their feces can build up in the air. Chicken farms in Ontario are required to have backup generators, and Wiley’s switched on without a hiccup.
Dairy farmer Jim Wert, at Avonmore, said that farmers dodged a bullet with the latest storm. On April 16, during the heart of the ice blast, there was a thaw, said Wert. The weight of the ice, before the thaw, was bending hydro poles and cracking open trees. A three-hour thaw saw the trees and poles straighten back up before the next round of icy rain. “If we hadn’t had that warming period, things could’ve been really interesting,” he said.