Possible dike breach looms over Man. vegetable farms

Sandor Arendse can see and hear the big equipment preparing to breach the dike separating him and his family farm from the surging Assiniboine River, but as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t had any official word that he could be flooded.

“It looks like I’m going to lose my home and my livelihood,” the onion farmer, who farms with his dad, said grimly.

Less than a half a mile from where the Manitoba government is preparing a controlled spill to avoid an uncontrolled breach of the Assiniboine dikes between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg, Arendse, his wife, five-month-old son and two cats are preparing to evacuate.

“We’re assuming we’ll have to,” he said. “You can see where they’re doing the work from here so there’s no question we have to get out once it starts.”

Valuables have been taken from the house the Arendses moved into in November. A small sandbag dike surrounds it.

“That’s just to slow the water down,” he said.

“The lack of communication (with officials) is extremely frustrating.”

The Manitoba government says breaching the dike is a last resort that could flood 150 homes and 225 square miles to save 850 homes and 500 square miles east of here.

But if vegetable farmer Doug Connery of Connery’s Riverdale Farms has his way the dike won’t be breached. He says the land and the vegetable crops grown here are just too valuable to be sacrificed.

If letting some water out of the river is necessary it should be done further north and east where there’s more pasture and less cropland, he said.

Connery estimates the man-made flood will submerge almost 2,000 acres of prime vegetable growing land operated by four farmers, including him.

“The worst case scenario is $10 million worth of farm gate sales from those four farms would be lost,” he said. “We use a multiplier factor of 10 to one for the dollars that it creates in the economy so that’s a $100 million loss to the province. The maximum those four farms can get from government (in compensation) is $800,000 — $200,000 each.”

Bills

If the farms are flooded the government must fully compensate farmers and homeowners, he stressed. Connery said without full compensation he could go broke.

He’s already spent $35,000 in airfare to bring in workers from Jamaica and Mexico.

“Next week I have a chemical bill of $140,000,” he said. “Two weeks ago we paid a seed bill of $140,000. Money is going out the bank account faster than it’s going down the river right now. And we don’t have one dime of income coming in. If we have to wait another full 12 months before we have any money coming in, what do we do?”

Connery, Manitoba’s largest strawberry and asparagus grower, is especially worried about those commodities because they are perennial crops. It costs $15,000 an acre and six years before a newly planted asparagus field is ready to harvest, he said.

Connery grows about 70 per cent of Manitoba’s broccoli and 40 per cent of its carrots as well as cooking and green onions.

In addition to flooded farmland, seven farm homes connected to the farm could also be flooded, Connery said.

Connery, who had already spoken to deputy agriculture minister Barry Todd Tuesday, was hoping to meet Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers later in the day.

— Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man.

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