Northern Alberta farmers struggle with wet conditions

Lush fields greet a woman and her son as they walk up a hill on the Brant Hutterite Colony near Brandt, Alta. Some parts of Alberta have been too wet with nearly 200,000 acres going unseeded, while others have recorded ideal moiture this year.  |  Mike Sturk photo

Persistent wetness in parts of northern Alberta has forced grain growers to leave hundreds of thousands of acres unseeded this spring, according to the provincial crop insurance program.

Preliminary estimates suggest that more than 200,000 acres of insured cropland in the areas northeast and northwest of Edmonton and north of Highway 16 between Edmonton and the Saskatchewan border will not produce a fall-harvested crop this year.

That number could be significantly higher, depending on how many additional unseeded acreage reports were received before the Agriculture Financial Services Corp. reporting deadline of June 20.

That number does not include uninsured cropland that was too wet to plant this spring, or low-lying cropland that was planted this spring but has since been flooded by excessive rain.

“Right now, we have approximately 200,000 (insured) acres in the province reported as unseeded and the vast majority of those — about 80 percent — are in the same areas where we had unharvested (acres last fall),” said Jackie Sanden, product co-ordinator with AFSC.

Unseeded acre reports submitted by AFSC’s farmer clients are still being processed, meaning actual unseeded acres are likely to exceed 200,000 acres.

It could be another two to three weeks before the corporation has a concrete figure on total unseeded acres in the province, Sanden said in a June 25 interview.

“We definitely would expect there to be more unseeded acres (beyond the 200,000 already reported) but I can’t speculate as to how many that might be,” she said.

“The conditions …(in affected areas) are really wet. In addition to having unharvested acres in the fall and over winter, a lot of those same areas have had really high rainfall this spring also.”

Provincially, 79 percent of Alberta’s crops were reported in good or excellent condition, according to the latest provincial crop report, released June 26 by Alberta Agriculture.

But in parts of the northwest, northeast and Peace growing regions, farmland is saturated and flooded fields won’t produce a crop.

In the province’s northwest growing region, surface moisture was rated last week as excessive on nearly 47 percent of cropland.

Conditions in many parts of the northeast and Peace River growing regions are also wet, with some already-waterlogged farms receiving close to 250 millimetres of rain since May 1.

In the province’s wettest areas, many fields that were mudded in this spring have since been drowned out and are unlikely to be reseeded, the provincial crop report said.

For some growers who were unable to harvest a significant portion of their 2019 crop, the 2020 growing season will be the second consecutive year of lost or reduced production.

Sanden said farmers in a large area encompassing parts of the municipal districts of Greenview and Big Lakes, northwest of Edmonton, are dealing with excess moisture, along with growers in the counties of Woodlands, Barrhead, Lac Ste. Anne, Parkland, Leduc, Sturgeon, Westlock, Thorhild, Smoky Lake, Lamont and Beaver.

Todd Hames, a grain grower and chair of the Albert Wheat Commission, who farms near Marwayne, Alta., about 250 kilometres east of Edmonton, said saturated field conditions extend all the way east to the Saskatchewan border.

On his farm, Hames said some low spots that were seeded a few weeks ago are now flooded, however, overall conditions as of late June were reasonably good.

But further north and west, in areas around St Paul Willingdon, Smoky Lake and Westlock, the struggles have continued.

“It’s not just this year. It’s a continuation of last year,” said Hames.

“They were wet last year and they’ve continued to get some significant rainfall this spring.

“Guys who have lower ground that’s prone to flooding, they’ve had some real challenges for the last few years….”

Hames said some Alberta farms that dealt with excess moisture conditions last fall have already recorded about 250 mm of rain this spring.

Anecdotal reports suggest that canola plantings in some areas northeast of Edmonton, including the County of Thorhild, have already suffered significant damage with yield losses on some farms expected in the range of 25 to 50 percent.

“There’s certainly some hurt in those areas… and unfortunately, it’s many of those same areas that also had a lot of crop left out from last year,” Hames said.

AFSC’s Sanden said about one million acres of insured Alberta cropland were not harvested last fall.

Some of those acres were harvested this spring but others were written off and were grazed, baled, burned or plowed under.

As of June 27, about 100,000 insured Alberta acres planted in the spring of 2019 were unharvested and abandoned or put to a use other than grain production, AFSC said.

Northwest of Edmonton, near Rycroft, Alta., grain farmer and pedigreed seed grower Nick Sekulic said wet conditions throughout last year, followed by a damp, delayed harvest period last fall and an early winter with heavy snowfall have compounded headaches for growers.

Growers throughout the Peace River region struggled to get last year’s crop in the bin before winter and a lot of acres were left out.

“Almost everyone in this part of the world was hoping, given the amount of crop that was left out, that we’d have an early, dry spring that would allow us to finish harvesting last year’s crop before normal seeding,” Sekulic said.

“But we didn’t really start harvesting the crop that we’d left out until early May.

“It made for some significant challenges this spring,” he continued.

“In our case, we had the equipment and the people to deal with it, but there were farmers in other parts not so far away from where we are that — no matter the resources they had at their disposal — could not get the crop in this year and in some cases couldn’t get last year’s crop off.”

Peace region growers located in the counties of Saddle Hills, Grande Prairie and the B.C. Peace are among the worst affected.

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