Crop outlook bleak as drought ravages Prairies

National Post (Link) - Emily Senger (July 6, 2009)

Even if the rain comes now, it will be too late for the "dismal" canola and wheat crops on Moses Farms, located east of Edmonton near the Saskatchewan border.

The situation is bleak for farmers and ranchers across much of Central Alberta and east toward Saskatoon, where a cold spring - and what Environment Canada is calling the worst drought in 50 years - has left soil dry and crops stunted.

Gary Moses, 62, has farmed on Moses Farms near Vermilion, Alta., for 45 years on some of the same land his great-grandfather purchased in 1915. He said this spring is one of the driest he can remember.

"The canola is the worst," Mr. Moses said. The dry spring and six days of frost early in the growing season have left big, bare patches where the canola didn't sprout at all.

The wheat isn't much better on the 7,500 acres Mr. Moses farms with his son Tyler, 36.

"The wheat is sparse," Mr. Moses said. "It looks decent from the road, but when you walk in it, you could throw something down and not hit anything. It's very thin."

The drought has prompted nine counties in Central Alberta to declare agricultural states of emergency, including the County of Vermilion River, where Mr. Moses farms. This year, Mr. Moses estimates he'll get about 20 to 25% of his average yield on the wheat, and will lose between $150 and $180 per acre, compared to a normal year. He estimates crop insurance will cover about 50% of his losses.

There is no official criteria for declaring an agricultural emergency, but the County of Vermilion River decided to pass the motion two weeks ago, after more than a month of waiting for rain that never came, said Richard Van Ee, a county reeve.

"Every day we said, �Well, maybe it will rain, maybe it will rain.' It didn't rain and the crops just were not growing," Mr. Van Ee said. "We decided that we needed to let government and insurance companies know that it's a disaster here."

Mr. Moses has measured less than 2 cm of rain on some of his land since May 1. Normal is closer to 13 cm, he said.

According to Environment Canada, the worst hit drought zone has seen less than 40% of normal spring precipitation. The Canadian Wheat Board has predicted smaller than average crop yields this year, as a result. During the last severe drought in the region in 2002, farmers produced just 14.6 million tonnes of wheat, compared with the current five-year average of 23 million tonnes.

Many cattle ranchers are selling part of their herd, because pasture grass is stunted and there is no place to buy hay, Mr. Van Ee said.

The drought is widespread in Saskatchewan, too, said provincial Agriculture Minister Bob Bjornerud, who spent last Thursday and Friday touring the region west of Saskatoon.

"It's so bad near Rosetown and Kindersley area that you have to actually look to see if it's actually seeded," Mr. Bjornerud said. "There's very little that actually came up."

Some Saskatchewan counties are talking about declaring agricultural states of emergency or disaster, similar to the nine Alberta counties, Mr. Bjornerud said.

In response to the drought, the Crown corporation Saskatchewan Crop Insurance announced changes that will allow some producers to collect insurance before an adjustor inspects their field. This will get money to farmers faster, Mr. Bjornerud said.

In Alberta, adjusters at the crown corporation that handles crop insurance are busier than usual assessing claims as farmers decide to turn cattle out to eat what is left of their crops, said Chris Dyck, Alberta Agriculture Financial Services Corporation senior manager of insurance operation.

At this point, the federal government hasn't announced an AgriRecovery program, which provides one-time disaster funding.

Gerry Ritz, the Federal Minister of Agriculture, said farmers will be able to access existing programs, which provide cash to farmers and ranchers.

"Everyone is hopeful that they can get a crop," Mr. Ritz said. "They'd much rather have the marketplace deliver their money than the mailbox."