Northern Alta. farmers waterlogged

Five rural municipalities north of Edmonton have declared agricultural disasters due to excessive rainfall this year and farmers across a wide area of central and northern Alberta are looking at drastically reduced yields and income.

The counties of Athabasca, Lamont, Leduc, Northern Lights and Thorhild have made disaster declarations, with Northern Lights and Leduc the most recent to alert the province to the plight of producers.

“Mother Nature has not been our friend,” said Thorhild County deputy reeve Cheryl Pasay, in an understatement. Her county has declared ag disasters in four of the last five years, all of them due to excess moisture that curtailed farm operations.

Pasay and fellow councillor Richard Filipchuk have each measured more than 530 millimetres of rain this spring and summer.

In Northern Lights County, reeve Terry Ungarian welcomed July 21 as one of the few days this summer without rain, although there was more in the forecast. He’s measured 290 mm on his farm since mid-May.

“There’s crops that you can’t even hardly tell if they’ve even germinated,” said Ungarian. “In some of the crops that did come up, they’re starting to yellow now, with lots of drowned out spots. I would say that there’s probably 75 to 80 percent of the crops are going to be probably not even worth harvesting.”

Haying in his region of the province’s northwest, surrounding Manning, has so far been impossible because of wet field conditions. The hay looks good, he said, but there’s no way to reach it.

“Even if it stopped raining, it’s going to take a few weeks for it to probably be dry enough,” Ungarian said. “I’m kind of hoping we get a nice stretch of hot, dry weather, and I still might be able to get out there. It won’t be quality hay because it has already peaked. It’s all starting to mature now and setting seed, but it will be better than snow.”

As for crops, at this point an open fall with no frost until October would be needed to collect what has managed to grow, “but when does that ever happen when you need it?”

In Leduc County, council declared a state of agricultural disaster July 23, noting 35,000 acres of land had not been seeded due to wet conditions.

“As of July 9, approximately 65 per cent of barley crops, 50 percent of canola crops and 35 percent of wheat crops were estimated to be in poor condition in Leduc County. Poor crop conditions are defined as fields with less than 60 percent of healthy plants,” it said in its declaration.

Thorhild, Lamont and Athabasca counties made their declarations in June and wet conditions have persisted since then.

Declaring an ag disaster is a method of drawing attention to major problems.

“The reason that we declare disasters is so that the province is aware and there is that ability for policy makers to put some of these programs in place,” said Pasay. “I think everybody is just looking toward the province to say, ‘OK, acknowledge that we’ve got an issue.’ I truly hope that the ag minister will be able to bring something forward to assist.”

However, Thorhild County officials have met with Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen and Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken to describe the situation, with no commitment for assistance.

“He’s a very good listener,” Thorhild County reeve Kevin Grumetza said about Dreeshen at the meeting.

He said the minister emphasized the use of crop insurance and other business risk management programs, although council members told him that existing programs have limited use in the current situation.

Both Grumetza and Pasay said in interviews that they are concerned not only about the financial health of farmers in their region, but also their mental health in this fifth year of poor conditions.

“Farmers are pretty tough. They’ll pick up the pieces and continue on, with the old saying that ‘next year will be better.’ But this has been five years of ‘next year will be better,’ ” said Grumetza, and some are reaching the breaking point.

Pasay echoed his view.

“There is that tipping point and I think that this year, that tipping point for a lot of famers is going to be more to either downsizing or just getting out of the agricultural business altogether,” she said.

In the massive Northern Lights County, Ungarian’s farm is in one of the wettest areas. There’s a spot on his home quarter that he usually avoids in early spring but drives through in summer.

“That spot has grown significantly. It was wet all last summer after the rains came, wet this spring after the snow melted, and it’s still wet today. It’s turned into a swamp,” he said.

He is already considering options for either reducing his herd size, buying feed or moving his cattle someplace where feed is available.

““I haven’t thrown the towel in yet. I’ve got another month or so to make some hard decisions,” he said.

In Thorhild County, Pasay is considering similar options. Some of her pastures are only accessible now with a four-wheel-drive tractor.

In addition to field conditions in all of the affected counties, roads and in some cases bridges have been damaged or washed out so access around the municipalities has become a problem. Grumetza said 33 roads have been closed at one time or another due to overland flooding and washout.

In an instance of black humour, he noted the fine condition of Myrtle Bridge in the county. The problem is, the ground has washed out on either side so it now sits in the middle of the river, inaccessible except by boat.

In Northern Lights, Ungarian noted the hours of daylight that extend to about 22 hours in summer are now beginning to shorten, reducing opportunities for drying. In some fields, the remnants of last year’s crop remain in fields because of rain and snow in fall and more rain this spring.

Farmers made an effort to harvest and seed this spring, he said, but their efforts may come to naught.

“It was kind of odd to see one neighbour not far away, there was a swather, a combine behind the swather, then a set of harrows behind that and then the air seeder behind that,” Ungarian said of activity this spring.

“They were just doing every operation in one day there, simultaneously, but unfortunately I go by that field often and the results didn’t turn out…. All the rain, it’s probably not what he was hoping for.”

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