Official drought or not, Alberta farmers experiencing toughest summer in years
EDMONTON -- Although the province isn't declaring official drought conditions yet, early estimates are that agricultural write-offs could be the highest they've been in a decade.
"We started with a lot of moisture so we're in better shape," John Guelly told CTV News Edmonton.
Expecting 75 to 80 per cent of his usual yield, the Westlock canola farmer considers himself one of the lucky ones this season.
"You only have to go 15, 20 miles from here and people are talking about turning their cows into it as soon as crop insurance comes because there's just nothing there. There's not even enough to make a bale or a crop up for animals or anything. It's terrible."
Alberta Canola general manager Ward Toma said: "In my definition, yeah, we're in a drought in the Prairies. Alberta's on the edge of it."
The province is holding off on speaking so definitively – for there are technical and legal parameters before dry conditions are labelled drought – but according to its own agricultural outlook, the situation is poor.
Precisely, poor or fair is how 67 per cent of Alberta's crop growing conditions were rated in the July 13 Alberta crop report.
Compared to the June 28 report, provincial growing conditions dropped 32 per cent as a heat wave landed over western Canada.
The 37 per cent rated good to excellent is exactly half of the Alberta's five-year average of 74 per cent and 10-year average of 73 per cent.
"That hot weather, in one farmer's words, basically took a blowtorch to his crops and they dried on the spot, so there's nothing there," Toma said.
'COULD BE AS BAD AS 2002': EARLY ESTIMATE
Already, adjusters have helped farmers submit 300 claims to the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation for losses, and had nearly as many appointments scheduled for the week of July 19, according to the agriculture minister.
"It is obviously a tough year for those pockets that just didn't get the rain and again they couldn't sustain the multiple heat waves we've had so far this year," Devin Dreeshen told CTV News in an interview Tuesday.
According to the latest crop report, the best crop conditions currently are in the central region where 59 per cent of crops are rated as good or excellent, but that number drops to 33 per cent in the south and between 18 and 27 per cent in the Peace and northwest regions.
"The year over year precipitation deficits now exceed 1 in 50 year lows in some areas. For many of these areas, deficits started accumulating in July 2020, as wet spring weather was replaced with a drying trend which ran through fall and winter," the crop report reads.
"The lack of moisture, coupled with the effects of the intense heat have been amplified and taken its toll on soil moisture reserves."
Pasture fields are turning yellow or brown and have little regrowth, it noted – a "livestock welfare concern," Toma said.
"There are certain areas, especially, where there are complete write-offs of crops, so that's a crude estimate of it could be as bad as 2002," Dreeshen added.
That year, an equivalent $1 billion in indemnities was paid out by crop insurance, the highest amount on record, Dreeshen said. Although it's early to say concretely 2021 losses will number as high, the province is depending on Ottawa to activate the federal AgriRecovery program as it says it will.
"Which is a good thing," Toma commented, "because it gets people lined up and it gets the wheels of the government moving so that when things happen, they can happen in as timely a fashion as possible."
SMOKE PROVIDING MOMENTARY RELIEF
According to the Alberta Canola general manager, wildfire smoke has mitigated some of the heat but could pose a different problem if it remains so thick for too long.
"Smoke also inhibits photosynthesis. So the plants kind of take a breather but then there's potential that if it carries out, the crops that are there with potential good harvest could end up being late," he explained.
"It's going to be a tough one, again."
Guelly's canola in Westlock is starting to form pods, but it will need rain.
"We were ahead of schedule so we can afford to maybe lose a little bit of time. But we can't have this drag on too long," he said, "or it's going to delay our harvest and probably some bad weather this winter or fall."
With files from CTV News Edmonton's David Ewasuk