Poor harvest, spring flooding on mind of Sask. ag minister

Lyle Stewart also says the new federal carbon tax will hurt agriculture

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart is hoping for a smoother ride this year after the roller-coaster that grain producers endured in 2016.

“When you have an early seeding and a late harvest, that doesn’t combine to make very good news usually,” he said.

“It caused lots of problems.”

Early seeding in dry conditions, predictions of a record crop and then a wet summer and harvest all combined to take producers on that wild ride that Stewart believes was the main issue facing the industry last year.

About 1.5 million acres of crop were left in the field in December, and Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. estimated that payouts will top $500 million.

About 8,700 claims had been made by mid-December, and 6,855 extensions were granted to producers who didn’t finish harvest.

“That ensures that they’ll have insurance if there’s a shortfall in the combination of production and quality when they harvest it in the spring,” Stewart said.

However, farmers still produced the second-largest crop in history at 35.6 million tonnes.

Moving that crop could have been a problem, similar to 2013-14, but the late harvest and quality issues delayed deliveries and the rail system has kept up.

“The main holdup is this quality thing,” Stewart said. “Guys are shopping around for a deal that they can accept and live with.”

Samples have been graded and there is room in elevators, he said.

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Bright spots on the crop side include record canola yields and good prices, as well as steady lentil prices.

“Lentil production per acre fell off, but there were a lot more acres seeded,” Stewart said.

“The cereals, the return per acre won’t be as good, but for both pulses and canola the returns are quite good.”

The calf price rally in late fall was the year’s highlight for beef production. Prices are lower than some would like but still historically strong.

The discovery of bovine tuberculosis in an Alberta herd with ties to Saskatchewan was a blow. Five premises on three operations in Saskatchewan were affected by the resulting quarantine.

Stewart said the background work for an AgriRecovery payment was done, but the province has yet to decide if it will follow Alberta in offering assistance to affected producers for extraordinary costs while they can’t deliver animals to market.

“We’ll do our level best to look after them as well as the Alberta operations are dealt with,” he said.

Meanwhile, the hog industry hopes for better days ahead and a price rally by spring.

“Hog prices have suffered through the summer and fall, and they’re at a level now where profitability is pretty marginal,” Stewart said.

As well, all farmers are keeping an eye on the sky over the next couple of months.

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The recent Water Security Agency forecast that the province could be in for a wet spring and flooding causes concern for everyone.

Stewart said flooding could be a serious issue, particularly in east-central Saskatchewan, where he said farmers are facing a triple whammy.

“There’s already substantial snowfall in some areas up there, and the ground was absolutely saturated when it froze up, and there’s crop out in that area as well.”

Also on the horizon for 2017:

  • Carbon tax — Saskatchewan remains strongly opposed to the imposition of a tax that it says will hurt its agriculture, oil and gas and manufacturing sectors.

“We export 95 percent, roughly, of what we produce in agricultural commodities, and we have to sell it into world markets that don’t care one way or another whether we have a carbon tax,” Stewart said.

The province has estimated that a tax of $50 per tonne would cost a grain farmer $10 to $12 an acre.

  • Next agricultural policy framework — Ministers will meet in Newfoundland and Labrador in July to sign the next five-year deal. The province is still consulting with producers as it formulates its position.

“I don’t know if we’re going to get AgriStability strengthened much or not,” Stewart said, referring to the business risk management program that most agree must be improved to offer true benefits.

“We understand the federal pot of money isn’t going to be any bigger, so to enhance one program we have to take from someplace else, basically,” he said.

“That tells me that after the dealing’s done, there may not be a whole lot of change.”

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