HALIFAX, N.S. — It all starts with limestone.
In Nova Scotia, where the soil tends to be acidic, the mineral allows farmers to “soften” the soil, creating a more neutral pH level that allows plants to better absorb the nutrients they need to grow. .
It is an essential element for those who grow fruits and vegetables, forage crops and flowers.
“If our soils are in better condition and healthy. . . we can get away with a little less nutrients and a little less cost to the farm,” said Tim Marsh, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA).
This season, however, some farmers are wondering if they can even afford to apply limestone to their fields.
One of the main sources of limestone in Nova Scotia comes from a quarry in the Musquodoboit Valley.
With diesel fuel at record prices, even higher than regular gasoline, the cost of trucking limestone from quarry to farm has skyrocketed.
This week, the province’s Department of Agriculture decided to add an additional $200,000 to Limestone’s trucking assistance program, bringing the program fund to $550,000 this season.
In a May 25 press release, Agriculture Minister Greg Morrow said: “After visiting several farms across the province to hear from farmers and meeting with Tim Marsh at NSFA this morning, I am taking action to help farmers struggling with rising diesel costs.
Marsh told SaltWire “every little bit to help agriculture is nice,” but inflation is creating many challenges this year.
They still have to pay for the limestone and cover 20% of the cost of transporting it by truck, he said.
Then there are other agricultural costs.
“The other day I joked with my fertilizer supplier, wondering if I should take out a mortgage to buy it,” Marsh said.
That cost doubled, Marsh explained.
“I just got some the other day and it was $1,280 a ton. Last year it was around $550,” he said.
Diesel prices, well above $2 a litre, are also hitting farms hard.
“It costs $600 to $700 a day to fill a tractor, and if you’re not getting more for your retail products, that’s where the pain is,” Marsh said.
He had planned to grow more green maize this year, he said, but worried that wet weather at harvest time would only increase costs.
He would have to fire up propane heaters to dry the corn before he could store it, and the cost of propane means it’s probably not possible to grow that crop at all.
The story is similar for all farms, he said.
“I know for a lot of growers cash flow is extremely tight and they’ve cut back on fertilizer, some seeding choices.”
Even with government money to cover the cost of trucking, “limescale might be another thing they’ll reduce,” he said.
Agriculture ministers from across Canada met in Halifax on Thursday, May 26.
Marsh is unsure what will happen to this to help the industry, but he hopes they will consider other ways to help farmers, such as eliminating the cost of limestone altogether.
“In some other jurisdictions around the world, their environment departments pay farmers to apply limestone,” Marsh said, explaining that limestone is considered important to the overall environment.
Meanwhile, he said, Nova Scotia farmers face tough decisions.
“Just yesterday I heard that a potato farmer decided not to farm. He needed a few extra cents a pound for his crop, but the wholesaler was unwilling to pay. The PEI potato surplus is keeping the farm gate price down,” Marsh said.
There’s a lot of competition in the produce section of the grocery store, he said, and that’s where local shoppers can help farmers.
“The biggest thing consumers can do, if they really want to help, is buy local,” he said. “Make sure they buy local products and demand local products when they go to the grocery store.”
This would go a long way, he said, to ensuring retailers buy from local farms.
Purchase of additional pasture
Earlier this month, the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, through the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board, spent $1.1 million to purchase 125 hectares of pasture in Cape John, Pictou County. The council owns another 325 hectares of pasture in Cape John.
In a May 20 press release, the ministry said this brings the total area of active community pastures in the province to more than 2,500 hectares.
The other six community pastures in the province include: 117 hectares in Digby County, 1,033 in Cumberland County, 87 in Richmond County and three pastures totaling 792 hectares in Inverness County.
Pastures are leased and operated by independent cooperatives and used by farmers to raise cattle for beef production.
Beef producer John Tilley uses Cape John pasture. He said he sends some of his herd to community grazing in the summer, freeing up some of his own farmland so he can grow fodder crops to feed his animals through the winter.
Agriculture Minister Greg Morrow said in the press release that the department was working with the Farm Loan Board to help livestock producers lower their costs of production and reduce barriers for new farmers.
“By helping farmers lower their costs, we’re supporting affordable local food for Nova Scotians,” Morrow said.