Aid repayment schedule frustrates some farmers

The provincial government is asking farmers to pay back $30 million in agricultural aid, and some farmers say it's not a good time after this year's bad weather.

The $30 million in overpayments accumulated over a period of about 10 years. In all, the province gave farmers $3.1 billion in aid, and it's asking for what amounts to one per cent of it back.

Agricorp, a Crown agency, provides risk-management programs for Ontario farmers. A spokesperson for Agricorp said about 4,500 farmers have been notified that they owe money, and that 75 per cent of those 4,500 farmers owe less than $5,000.

Some of the $30 million was paid out in error, while some hasn't been paid back by the farmers who owe it.

The farmers were notified in April. They have three years to pay back what they owe, with interest starting on Jan. 1.

Drought year will make payment difficult, some farmers say

Peter Tippins, a beef farmer in Renfrew, Ont., said he received a letter saying he owes the province $18,000 after he received aid money in 2007 following the mad cow disease outbreak in 2003.

"Why did it take several years? I don't know. It shouldn't," Tippins said. "Why don't they invoice you? I don't know."

At the height of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, Tippins said he applied for financial assistance because he couldn't sell his cows.

Now, he said he's struggling through the worst drought he's seen in decades.

"I don't think you should just be able to just phone someone and say, oh, by the way, we made a mistake or someone made a mistake or we didn't catch it or whatever the reason is several years ago, and you owe this kind of money," Tippins said. "Well how do you turn your business around to incorporate that debt in with your operating debt? You can't pay what you don't have.

"We have one cut of hay … my pasture is burnt right off, I'm feeding hay now to the cattle, the corn crop mostly has no cobs on it which makes it very poor quality, and most of it's really short too. So you're going to try to make do and if you have to buy feed, you don't even have the money for the extra feed you're going to need and it's three times the price of normal."

Donald Good is a lawyer representing 18 local farmers. He said he's urging farmers not to pay anything until the province can provide adequate proof of overpayment.

"The timing is really bad … But I guess the big question will be is whether the farmers really owe Agricorp any money, and/or if they do, whether Agricorp is really in a position, and whether the government of Ontario, is really in a position to collect it," Good said.