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Heat and drought play havoc with Peace Harvest

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AF contributor

With much of the Peace country declared an agricultural disaster area this summer, harvest results are decidedly better than expected. Although the counties of Grande Prairie, Saddle Hills, Birch Hills, Clear Hills and municipal districts of Fairview and Spirit River declared themselves disaster zones, yields haven’t been as bad as feared, says David Wong, market specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

“Grain in the bins is mostly down for sure and the area took a lot of hits,” says Wong. “But thanks due to some scattered showers, it wasn’t as bad as expected, even in the drier areas.”

Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) senior area adjuster Shawn Pearson says a “little better than half” of Peace fields are insured through AFSC.

“Producers are sitting on about half a crop, with the exception of the North Peace area, where it was pretty good,” said Pearson. “Everything – barley, oats and wheat – in the south and west of the region took the biggest kicking.”

Pearson said that given the lack of rain, some were surprised with what was there.

“If there’s any bright spot, it was that forage grasses for seed production did better, there was actually some decent crops, given spring and fall precipitation. Still, most of the yields are sitting at about 50 per cent.” Pearson says yields varied significantly from farm to farm – even field to field.

Producers near Peace River and Manning as well as the Falher region fared the best. Pearson said forage seed crops like fescue and brome grass, mostly in the Manning area, were slightly below average.

“What is amazing is that these crops were virtually wiped out the further west we went, particularly in the B. C. Peace region,” Pearson said.

Many producers in the B. C. Peace region worked their fields under. “Some of them had only half an inch of rain all year,” said Pearson. “The further north you went, the drier it got.”

Average precipitation for the Grande Prairie area (May 1-September 1) was 150.2 mm in 2008, compared to 268.5 in 2007. That’s 64.3 per cent of the average over the last eight years. Numbers were worse for Fort St. John, which recorded only 114.7 mm this season, compared to 299.9 in 2007 – an average of less than 49 per cent.

Subsoil reserves

Art Macklin farms near Debolt east of Grande Prairie. He says that despite this being the driest he’s seen it, he was “amazed” at how well the crops did.

“Given that we had no appreciable rain from seeding until early August, we must have had good subsoil moisture,” he said. Yields ran about 50 bushels an acre for his barley; 30-plus for canola and between 35-37 for wheat. Macklin grows certified timothy that he reports was “pretty dry” and his creeping red fescue numbers were down too, but again, overall, he was pleasantly surprised.

“Going into the spring there was lots of optimism,” Pearson said. “Everyone went after the big crop but it didn’t materialize.”

The saving grace, say all, was a good snow cover. “That delayed seeding, but the moisture carried us a long time after we ran out of water,” Pearson said.

Wong said that with the current economic crisis and dropping grain and oilseed prices, the market is particularly volatile. Though good production is reported across the Prairies, Wong said the ability of end users to secure credit isn’t helping the marketplace.

“Over the long term, market prices are about average but compared to the spring, prices took a hit,” he said. Canola has rebounded slightly to $9 a bushel, from a high average around $13 this spring. Wheat lost between $2-$3 a bushel from the spring’s forecast. Add the fertilizer shortage and accompanying high prices, and the situation is onerous.

“We really need moisture this winter to replenish our soils,” said Wong. Even with that, low grain prices and high input costs will bring to bear even more pressure on producers next spring.

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