By Connor Lynch
LUCAN — Heavy rainfall in August that boosted the soybean crop may well have doomed significant portions of Western Ontario’s corn. A toxin produced by mould in wet corn has many growers pulling out their hair and wondering whether they’ll be able to sell their crop.
Elevator operator John Geudens, who manages Ondrejicka Elevators’ Lucan location, in Middlesex County, says the situation in his area is nothing short of a nightmare.
“Maybe five per cent of the corn is coming in under 5 parts per million (ppm),” a vomitoxin level that could see producers face a steep discount on their crop. A quarter of it was at 10 ppm, a level high enough that most elevators in the province would flat reject it. The rest, about 70 per cent of the corn coming in, was even higher. “The highest we’ve gotten is 45 ppm.”
Geudens is accepting corn as high as 15 ppm, unlike most elevators, which are cutting off loads at 8 ppm. He expects he’ll be able to market at least some of it, but isn’t certain how much. “Everybody is waiting to hear from crop insurance.”
He’s not the only one. Agronomist Peter Johnson has noted fields with vomitoxin levels as high as 37 ppm. Great Lakes Grain posted online on Oct. 24 that “We are seeing vomitoxin at unprecedented levels.” According to Agricorp, as of Oct. 31, there were 514 damage reports from farmers, largely in Middlesex, Lambton, Huron and Chatham-Kent.
OMAFRA’s field crop pathologist, Albert Tenuta, said this year’s hotspots also include Perth, Oxford and Essex. In particular, a path heading south from Huron County down to Elgin, and passing through London, has had the worst of it, he said. Heavy rainfall, dews and humidity in those areas that followed the hot, dry summer were significant factors in this year’s vomitoxin issues. Some hybrids seemed to do worse than others. In particular, corn plants with an upright ear and a tighter husk saw more damage, he said.
Elevator operator Mark Scott at Lucan, just north of London, said that he’s basically out of business this year because he doesn’t have a way to test for vomitoxin and can’t accept any corn.
Not all areas in Western Ontario have suffered equally. Elevator operator Dan Renwick at Belmore, just west of Mount Forest, doesn’t have a tester either but hasn’t had an issue accepting corn. “We’ve been shipping new corn out and it’s all good.”
Elgin County crop farmer Scott Persall just started harvesting corn on Oct. 29, but thus far his vomitoxin levels are manageable. Some amount of vomitoxin is normal across the province, and elevators will usually pay full price for corn as long as levels don’t exceed 3 ppm. Persall’s fields were in the 1-3 ppm range.
That’s not the story for others in the county. Elgin County crop farmer Jeff Davis, who farms 1,400 acres at St. Thomas, recorded vomitoxin levels from 3 to 8 ppm, which means price is discounted, from $0.25/bu to $1.52/bu. He’s hopeful that he can put the corn through a cleaner, as that can lower vomitoxin levels by 40 per cent. Cleaners get rid of the detritus of harvest; broken cobs, red dog, and other tiny bits of material. Those tiny pieces tend to accumulate significantly more vomitoxin, so cleaning them out can lower the test levels and potentially get a truckload past the elevator test.
If it doesn’t work, or work well enough, Davis is in a tight situation. “If I have to take a $1.50 discount on all my bushels, that’d be a disaster.”
One anxious farmer, who asked that he not be identified, said if he has too many rejected loads, “I’m out of business. I have crop insurance but I still have bills to pay.”
He added that since OMAFRA says air probes for testing should not be used by elevators, farmers want Ag Minister Ernie Hardeman to ban them for toxin tests.
While it was too early to say how much crop in Ontario will be affected, there were some good quality high yields coming in, Tenuta said, noting that only 20 per cent of acres had been harvested by Nov. 1. While Ontario’s rumour mills and coffee shop talk have broadcast that entire fields of corn have been dumped but he couldn’t confirm that. “There are some loads that have been rejected,” he said. “Agricorp has provided clearance to dump them back into a field. But it’s low numbers right now.”
Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio are all dealing with similar problems in their corn this year, Tenuta said.
Farmers with especially high vomitoxin levels, 10 ppm or above, should not only get in touch with Agricorp as soon as possible, Tenuta said, but consider storing their corn. Marketing opportunities are scant for high vomitoxin corn right now, but as the season advances and conversations between industry groups and agri-businesses, like ethanol plants, continue, more uses may open up.