Farmland in short supply across Alberta

There isn’t much cultivated farmland in Alberta, and there’s going to be even less in the future.

Alberta Agriculture agronomist Ross McKenzie told the Alberta Soil Science Workshop in Lethbridge Feb. 20 that land suitable for cropping is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in the province.

He said 23 million acres of land, or 16 percent of Alberta’s total land area, are available to grow crops.

“Alberta really has a relatively small percentage of land suitable for cultivated agriculture,” said McKenzie.

He calculated it like this:

  • There are 158.7 million acres of land in Alberta.
  • Of that, 52 million are used for agriculture.
  • Of that, 20 million acres are used for grazing or are in native grassland.
  • About 32 million acres are cultivated, with seven million of those in hay or tame pasture.
  • That leaves 23 million acres for crop cultivation, about two million of which are in summer fallow each year.

None of those areas are Class 1 land as defined by Agriculture Canada’s rating system based on soil type, climate and location.

Alberta’s best land is Class 2, and most of it is located east of Calgary and Edmonton, said McKenzie. A sizable portion of it is under threat from urban expansion.

Using data compiled by land use specialist Brad Stelfox of Calgary, McKenzie said Calgary now occupies 600 sq. kilometres.

At its current growth rate of 4.5 percent per year, it could cover 3,800 sq. km by 2050.

“In another 37 years, our very best agricultural land in southern Alberta, most of it will be under pavement and under parks, so not very productive,” McKenzie said.

“Society must really get much more serious about protecting our land for future generations.”

The oil and gas industry poses additional threats. McKenzie said estimates indicate there are 120,000 abandoned well sites on agricultural land. About 110,000 km of pipeline affect farmland, and in many cases crop production is only 60 percent of pre-pipeline levels.

“We can’t get back to where we were” in terms of land production after a pipeline has been installed, he said.

Alberta Environment regulations require that oil and gas companies reclaim land to at least 80 percent of its former production potential.

“That’s the requirement, but very rarely does this happen,” he said.

“Often in my travels, it seems like they reclaim about 40 or 50 percent of production.”

He speculated about whether more restrictions should be placed on pipelines, electrical lines and windmills that cross or occupy agricultural land.

McKenzie said manure from livestock feeding operations presents another threat because recommended manure application rates are based on nitrogen requirements rather than phosphorus content.

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