Canola acres take hit in seeding plans

King Wheat will likely reign on the Prairies again this year, with farmers ready to return to the oft-disparaged crop.

However, it’s not much of a triumph for wheat, but rather a defensive choice for farmers trying to cut risk and wait out market storms.

“A lot of people are cutting back on their canola around here,” said Gary Stanford, a Lethbridge farmer, who plans to boost his spring wheat and barley acres while cutting canola, flax and pulse acres.

“There’s still going to be canola planted, but the acres are going to be down.”

Statistics Canada reports that surveyed farmers said they intended to boost spring wheat acres by 12 percent, barley by 10.2 percent, peas by 11.6 percent and flax by 16.7 percent. Canola acreage is likely to drop by 6.6 percent and farmers intend to seed almost 19 percent less durum.

Few are surprised by farmers’ reaction to a confluence of factors:

  • Soils are very dry in many parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, especially in areas that aren’t sure-crop zones for canola.
  • Prices have plunged in some crops, making expensive-to-grow choices like canola financially risky.
  • Canola, durum and pulse crops, which are reliant on key overseas markets, face political and trade barriers that scare farmers.

“I’m hearing about a lot of contracts that aren’t being picked up,” said Laura Reiter, who farms northwest of Saskatoon and chairs Sask. Wheat.

“If markets become restricted, it becomes difficult to know what you’re going to be able to sell.”

Profitability is hard to gauge, but the fear that crops like canola might be hard to move in 2019-20 is probably convincing farmers to back away from it if they can.

“The elephant in the room is marketing issues,” said Reiter. With China blocking Canadian canola, India restricting pulse crop imports and Italy throttling back imports of Canadian durum, not only do prices look bad, but farmers don’t know how long they might have to store the coming crop.

“It’s a cash flow issue,” said Reiter.

While canola acreage is pegged by Statistics Canada to drop about 1.4 million acres, those losses are expected to fall heavily in marginal areas, where canola yields are volatile. Farmers won’t want to gamble with canola seeded into dry soils outside the black soil zone, say analysts.

With durum seeming risky due to trade restrictions in Italy, spring wheat has become the obvious choice for many farmers.

Stanford said he’s boosting spring wheat, but a neighbour is doing far more than that.

“He’s going fence row to fence row spring wheat.”

With market access an issue for other crops, soils still very dry even after the spring melt and prices low for everything, avoiding high input costs has become a major factor this year.

“People are being more careful with their input costs,” said Stanford.

“Canola’s an expensive crop to grow. If you’re not going to get 40 bushels an acre, it’s risky. People are trying to minimize the risk.”

For farmers on the northern Prairies, that won’t be such a worry. Stanford, who is chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said an informal poll showed that farmers from Red Deer north weren’t likely to cut many canola acres.

Reiter pointed out that it’s hard for farmers to switch up acres in the spring when seed often has to be booked in the fall. Farmers have a plan, manage their rotations and are loathe to jerk things around too much based on what could be short-term complications.

There are more than the usual number of things for farmers to worry about this year, said Harvey Brooks, executive director of Sask. Wheat.

Soils are dry. Seeding is late. Prices are dropping. Multiple markets seem imperilled.

“It’s a very difficult year. There are so many questions they can’t control this year,” said Brooks.

In the end, the best development for prairie farmers, as always, would be good weather this year. That would go a long way toward alleviating the problems, said Brooks.

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