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Ask first — snowmobile later

In some parts of the province, there’s a 50-50 chance there’s an unharvested crop beneath the snow

With winter firmly in place and 40 to 60 per cent of crops still in the fields, the County of Grande Prairie has a message for winter recreation enthusiasts: If you’re going to snowmobile on farmers’ property, ask first.

The county is issuing up to five free signs per farm urging people to get the owner’s permission before taking snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles onto private land.

“It’s really important that riders be aware that they are on private property and if they do not have permission they may be doing a lot of damage that they may not realize,” said Sonja Raven, agricultural fieldman for the county, which declared an agricultural state of emergency a month ago.

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Snowmobiling on private land has been a problem in the area in recent years, said Raven.

“Society has changed a little bit,” she said. “The idea of what constitutes private land and whether you can have access to it is maybe not as clear as it used to be.

“People don’t want to intentionally damage things for farmers so we are hoping by raising awareness we are going to help everybody all the way around. It is important to realize that our farmers’ livelihoods are out in those fields.”

The damage from running over unharvested crops cannot be underestimated, she said. For one, it can push plants further into the ground, making them more difficult to harvest in the spring.

“You can also damage the seed heads, exasperating shattering and loss of seed,” she added.

Snowmobiling without permission has become a problem throughout the Prairies.

For the second year in a row, the Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association — in partnership with Farm Credit Canada and the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Association — is offering signs warning recreational users that crops are still in the ground.

FCC is extending this service on an as-needed basis across the Prairies, said spokesperson Trevor Sutter.

“For Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and parts of Ontario, the need is obvious so signs will be available at all FCC offices in those areas,” he said in an email.

“We recognize that final portion of harvest represents a farmer’s annual income and, in many cases, that income is still sitting in the fields. Providing signs that might help protect crops from further damage is one small way we can help.”

A wet, and snowy, fall caused grief for producers over much of Alberta, but those in the Peace were particularly hard hit.

In her county, this was the fourth straight year of difficult conditions, said Raven. The county estimates this year’s harvest was 25 per cent below average, with about half of the major crops having been combined, a fifth swathed and the rest — about 31 per cent — still standing.

“We are basically into winter now so harvest is pretty much done,” said Raven. “For example, any peas that are left out are done. Some of the other crops are certainly going to have issues with quality and downgrading.

“Some guys have got 80 per cent of their crops off while other guys have not. Because the county is so big and so diverse, 40 to 60 per cent of crops still in the ground is fairly accurate when you average the whole.”

The provincial Ag Ministry estimates a third of crops in Peace Country as a whole were unharvested. Province-wide, it says 11.7 per cent of the five major crops (wheat, canola, barley, peas and oats) were unharvested when winter set in. Based on StatsCan acreage estimates for those five crops in the province (18.8 million acres), that means about 2.2 million acres were not harvested.

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