All that rain and its effect on crop quality is top of mind for Alberta farm leaders, but lurking just behind is the prospect of the railways seizing up again in the face of a huge harvest.
“It looks like there’s a lot of crop out there — I’ve heard estimates that this might be the biggest crop ever, and estimates that it might be second only to what we had in 2013,” said Alberta Pulse chair Allison Ammeter, who farms near Sylvan Lake.
“That’s a big issue as long as we’re dealing with the monopolies that we have with CN and CP. As farmers, we might not like government regulations but we recognize that the only way to counteract a monopoly in the industry is with government regulations. You can’t let a market sort itself out.”
That’s also a concern for her husband Mike, who is chair of the Alberta Barley Commission.
Although the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act — which sets targets for grain movement and penalizes the railways if they don’t meet them — was extended for a year, that’s not a long-term solution, he said.
“This is not an issue that is going away, as long as we export as much as we do,” he said.
The railways say they are better prepared to handle a massive crop than they were three years ago thanks to, among other things, extended sidings and a revised car allocation system worked out with the grain companies.
But both Ammeters pointed to another aspect of rail transport that is rarely discussed — the age of rail grain cars. The current fleet has a lifespan of about 50 years, and is about 40 years old.
“We’re getting to the point where people need to put some serious thought into what we’re going to do to get new rail cars, or we’re going to hit a crisis point,” said Allison. “Every year, there are about 600 to 700 rail cars that cannot be filled because they need repairs so badly.”
But given the seemingly never-ending rain across much of the province, the Ammeters and their fellow crop commission chairs were also focused on shorter-term issues when reached in late August.
Malt barley growers across the province are not only concerned about the quality of the crop, but also worried that a big stream of downgraded malt being sold as feed would further pressure feed prices, said Mike Ammeter.
“Some guys, I think, have done better than others, but I think that generally in the last two or three weeks, there has been a fair amount of wet weather,” he said. “We need some hot, dry weather. In our area, we’re not excessive, but we’ve got plenty of rain. Now we just need heat.”
It’s the same wish being made by Alberta Wheat chair Kevin Auch and Greg Sears, chair of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission.
“Right now, a lot of farmers are working on getting their crops into the bin,” said Sears, who farms near Sexsmith. “We’ve had huge amounts of rain all over the province, and there could be some challenges getting this harvest in.
“We’re in the situation where anything that is being swathed is immature and it will take awhile to cure in the swath. There were certainly some areas that were hail affected.”
“I have had some lower wheat quality in the past couple of weeks because of the rain,” added Auch, who farms near Carmangay. “My winter wheat could have been harvested earlier than I did, but we had continual rains on it. It’s happening around the province and I know we’re not the only ones.”
With a bumper crop on the horizon and U.S. wheat futures recently hitting a 10-year low, Auch is concerned about price prospects. But there is a silver lining for some, he said.
“If you have higher protein, I suspect you’ll get more for it,” said Auch. “The supply of higher-protein wheat is lower than what it has been because of the higher yields. They kind of go in opposite direction. If you get higher yields, you don’t get the protein.”
Because the global grain and oilseed trade is conducted in American dollars, Canadian farmers have been partially protected from falling prices by the low loonie.
(But “the low Canadian dollar doesn’t shelter us forever, and when you go to buy a machine, you’re paying for it in devalued dollars,” said Auch. “Anything that we buy will be going up in price as well. It holds the prices of our commodities up, but that can catch up to you when you go to buy your inputs or your machines.”