Vicious hailstorm slams Alberta

The crops were looking good this year on Matt Sawyer’s farm near Acme, Alta. The barley went in early and was thriving. The canola was spreading its leaves.

On June 13 it was gone, wiped out in a vicious storm that fired rain and hailstones, some of them baseball-sized, over a 20-minute-long siege.

“All over the place there’s 100 percent defoliated plants, so it just depends on what’s going to live and what isn’t now,” Sawyer said June 17 after taking a tour of his fields with a seed representative.

“Our cereals were smashed to the ground. Our barley was so advanced — I always like to put the barley in early and then we can pull it off early and I throw it in aeration … we’ve been very successful in pulling the barley off early and getting malt quality for it.”

That strategy won’t pay off this year and it is too late to reseed. In any case, decisions have to wait until the crop has been assessed by the insurance adjuster, a process that began June 18.

“I’m sure the cereals will come back to some degree so that at least you’ll be able to make some cattle feed out of them … but on some of this canola ground, it was so severely damaged I’m wondering, do we try to get a quick assessment and when the land does dry out, do we go back in and throw in some barley or some wheat for grazing purposes or to bale or silage?”

Sawyer and his family were attending his daughter’s graduation June 13, a process that in itself was different because of pandemic restrictions. That’s where Sawyer got the phone call that the family farm had been hard hit.

The hail was still lying in the field at noon the next day.

“There are areas of complete loss of plants. The cereals are starting to turn white. I’m assuming they have a bit of frost damage on them with the ice on them overnight,” he said.

“Whatever still is green is sort of hanging on with the last limb. It was quite advanced, the canola, when it was hit as well. It was almost ready to cabbage over so starting back from ground zero for that plant to have to start new leaves again…. If it does make it, it’s going to be darned late.”

Shawn Gorr faced similar devastation on his 2,000-acre farm, also in Kneehill County. Hailstones shredded his canola and wheat; broke windows and damaged siding on his house; and dented his truck.

“I think the cereals are going to come back, they’re just going to be pushed back,” said Gorr. “We’re basically now starting over from day one. … We’ll have to rely on a good long summer, warm September and frost free probably to the end of September to get any kind of crop.

“But the canola, I don’t know if that’s even going to come back. It’s really decimated.”

The storm that hit the region was part of a larger system that also struck parts of Calgary, where it damaged homes and vehicles and temporarily flooded Deerfoot Trail, the freeway through the city. Damage is estimated in the millions of dollars.

Jackie Sanden, product co-ordinator with Agriculture Financial Services Corp., said as of June 18 the offices had received claims for about 150,00 acres of crop but more claims were expected.

“Our clients have 14 days to report hail damage and often they’ll go and take a bit of time to drive around their fields before they put in a claim,” she said.

“We have just started sending the claims out to start inspecting the fields that were reported this past weekend from the hailstorm. We don’t have any finalized claims yet. The potential for the damage really has a wide range right now, from what we’re seeing, but of course there were multiple storm cells in Alberta.”

Sawyer said the last storm of this magnitude occurred July 1, 2000. What began then as a beautiful crop was whacked with hail but recovered to yield about 20 bushels per acre. In his region, yields of 65 to 70 bu. per acre are the usual expectation.

He doubts this year’s crop has a similar chance.

“There will be a crop that’s going to come out of it. It’s not going to amount to the big beautiful bountiful basket of crop that we’d like but who knows what it’s going to yield? It will be stressed if it lives, that’s for sure.”

Though hay isn’t his priority, Sawyer said it will be non-existent this year and he has no insurance on it. To add insult to injury, almost all his cereal and canola crops had been sprayed with herbicide in expectation of a good year.

“It’s kind of like you roll the dice, you play the game. I’m thankful that we have some crop insurance. But it’s kind of like a blackjack push. You get to start over again. You didn’t go ahead and hopefully you don’t go backwards.”

Jerry Whittstock, reeve of Kneehill County, said he thinks most crops in the region will recover from the storm, noting it helps somewhat that they are in an early growth stage. His own farm fortunately escaped major damage and there is good moisture in the region for future crop development.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said about the hailstorm, “but that being said, it beats a drought.”

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