It’s been anything but a normal year — and Justin Bell is just one of hundreds of Alberta farmers who can attest to that.
The Rosebud producer was praying for rain in June and praying for it to stop in September.
“We were ready to start on Sept. 7, but then we got two inches of rain,” said Bell.
He waited a week before firing up the combine but still had to deal with soaked fields on the 10,000 acres he farms with in-laws
“You’d be combining standing wheat and then you’d see water, so you’d have to pull out and go around it,” he said. “We had to leave a few spots that we just couldn’t get to because of the water.”
Despite the drought in early summer, this year will go down as one of the wettest on record in his part of the province — a one-in-50-year high according to provincial statistics.
It was that kind of a wacky year.
“In some places, there was a one-in-50-year low for soil moisture reserves in the middle of July, and now we’re looking at one-in-50-year highs,” said Ralph Wright, manager of the agro-meteorological applications and modelling section with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
Although rain hit much of the province last month, there was a lot of variation.
Areas south of Edmonton were generally in a one-in-six-year high for moisture in September, with areas south of Lethbridge at about one-in-three-year highs. The same situation is also prevalent in the central Peace around the Peace River.
“We do have areas that are a little bit drier. The southern Peace region and the extreme north Peace region are a little bit drier than normal for September,” said Wright.
Others hitting the one-in-50-year mark for soil moisture include some areas of Wheatland County, Special Areas 2, Pollockville, and Sunnynook. Other fairly wet areas include Sedgewick, Hardisty, Elnora, Delburne, and Trochu.
Back at Will Farms, the temperature was also a factor.
Rosebud usually gets a few days in September that are above 25 C. But this year, those days were few and far between.
So fields Bell had desiccated in late August sat for a month before being combined. Luckily, his wheat didn’t sprout, but that wasn’t the case for some in his area.
“When you get that much rain, you can start having sprouting in the head, and then if you swath it and you get all that rain in it, it’s worse in the swath,” he said. “You can have a lot more sprouting happening in the swath versus standing.”
Some areas were so dry, the rain soaked in fairly quickly, but most producers hoping for a “nice and dry and clear” September were disappointed, said Wright.
“Harvest operations are being hampered by the rains that are coming. Not big rains — but little rains that make it wet so you have to wait a couple of days for it to dry. That’s been sort of the norm.”
What isn’t normal is frost in the third week of August, but that’s what happened in several areas in the province.
“Fifty per cent of the time, the first frost doesn’t come until the third week of September,” said Wright. “Some get it sooner or later, but the point is that we had some frost a lot earlier than that,” said Wright.
And for those keeping track, the frost on Aug. 20 was a one-in-25-year event.
The silver lining — and it’s a big one for those baked out in early summer — is that soil moisture reserves have turned around.
“Almost all areas south of the Yellowhead Highway are at least near normal for soil moisture reserves as of just a few days ago,” Wright said in late September.
Bell’s ground was fully saturated heading into the last week of September, but fortunately the sun stayed out and things dried up enough to get him back in his fields.
And yes, he was looking on the bright side.
“The rain has topped up the soil moisture, so I’m definitely not worried that there will be (a lack of) moisture for next spring,” said Bell.