P.E.I. dairy farmers grappling with mangled, destroyed barns

Kevin Jewell's dairy barn in Meadowbank, P.E.I. collapsed during the strong winds from post-tropical storm Fiona. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)
Kevin Jewell's dairy barn in Meadowbank, P.E.I. collapsed during the strong winds from post-tropical storm Fiona. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC - image credit)

Kevin Jewell considers it a miracle he didn't lose a cow after powerful winds from Fiona ripped open his barn and crumpled the steel frame.

"It's unbelievable that could happen, in a barn that was full capacity," he said.

Jewell's son went to check on the main barn at their family farm in Meadowbank, P.E.I., early Saturday morning. He called to say it had collapsed and was completely destroyed.

"He said, 'Dad, she's gone,' and those were probably the most sickening words I've ever heard," Jewell said.

Dairy farmers across the province are facing significant damage in wake of post-tropical storm Fiona, which flattened at least 10 barns, broke silos in half and killed an unknown number of cows, according to the industry association.

'It was heartbreaking'

At Jewell Dale Farm, the 130 milking cows survived by crowding into the one end of the barn that didn't cave in. But the structure is a total loss and will need to be rebuilt.

Three farms have already taken in most of the operation's cows, which were trucked out within hours of the damage.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

Jewell said he plans to rebuild but expects to be out of the industry for six months to a year. The new barn will be built with stronger materials he hopes will stand up to future storms.

"It was heartbreaking. It was a dream barn for us," he said.

"I didn't even want to come up and look at it. Once we knew the animals were safe, I just wanted to stay away from it."

Farmers taking in cows

Dannie MacKinnon, vice-chair of Dairy Farmers of P.E.I., said many farmers sprang into action to take displaced cows from other farms once it was safe to do so after the storm passed.

At MacKinnon's 170-cow operation, Sandy Rae Farm in Brooklyn, the damage was limited to mangled fences, downed trees and flattened cornfields. But he said many farmers have fared far worse and face a long recovery.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

"For the people that have lost their buildings, there's no words in the dictionary to explain the devastation that those people are experiencing," he said.

Most dairy farms, including MacKinnon's, are still without power. Some are running tractors as generators to be able to keep operating milking and feed equipment.

The other issue farmers are facing: cornfields meant to provide winter feed have been flattened, which will make it hard or impossible to take up the crop.

Alexandre Silberman/CBC
Alexandre Silberman/CBC

MacKinnon said the damage from the storm is creating mental health issues for farmers.

"Dairy farmers have a tendency to be carrying a heavy stress load anyway, and you add this on top of it," he said.

Dairy production adapts

P.E.I. dairy co-operative ADL is continuing operations at four out of its five plants on the Island. One facility was still without power Wednesday, and product was being redirected.

As of Wednesday afternoon, ADL's fluid plant in Charlottetown was still offline. Milk has been going to the cheese plant in Summerside instead.

It's been a very trying week. — Chad Mann of ADL

CEO Chad Mann said while the processing side of the industry is continuing, there is "unprecedented" damage to farms.

"The fluid markets themselves have been compromised because we have Islanders that just don't have refrigeration, so they're not buying that type of product," he said.

Mann said preliminary estimates show at least seven per cent of farm operations have been compromised.

"It's been a very trying week."