Peace region suffers third year of drought – for Aug. 30, 2010

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It might be hard for sodden central and southern Alberta producers to believe, but unprecedented drought has spurred 10 municipalities in northwestern Alberta to declare agriculture disaster zones.

The counties of Grande Prairie, Saddle Hills and Birch Hills as well as the municipal districts of Big Lakes, Northern Sunrise, Spirit River, Fairview, Clear Hills, Smoky River and Greenview have made the disaster zone declaration. The sheer number, said M.D. of Fairview CAO Ben Boettcher, should send a strong signal to both levels of government that producers need some timely aid.

Alberta Agriculture is reporting the worst-ever soil conditions in northwestern Alberta this year. The County of Grande Prairie has received between 120 and 160 millimetres of precipitation since March, well below normal levels. The M.D. of Fairview and parts of the M.D. of Clear Hills had even less.

Cattlemen in the north Peace are being hit particularly hard, Boettcher said in an interview.

“There’s an abysmally low amount of hay per acre. Half a ton is common, and bales are as low as 200-300 pounds,” he said.

“Good pasture has been non-existent since the middle of July,” said Boettcher. “On a flyover of the area, it’s so brown and dormant you’d think it was October.”

Dugout water levels are also abnormally low.

The only bright spot are the areas north of Manning and around La Crete which have had some good rains and good crops.

The official position of the M.D. of Fairview is that a meaningful cash infusion by way of an acreage cash payment is needed, and needed now, Boettcher said.

At mid-August during the Northern Zone meeting of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties (AAMDC) a motion was unanimously passed to ask for a $60 acreage cash payment, he said.

Inputs lost

“It was felt that if producers in drowned-out areas were eligible for a $30-per-acre payment, $60 was fair for northwestern Alberta producers affected by drought,” said Boettcher.

“Farmers in drowned-out areas never really even moved their drills and seeders. There were no fertilizer inputs, and all told, these producers didn’t have the expense as a third of the land had not been seeded. Here, it was all seeded and fertilized, he added, noting that some of the fertilizer pellets are still sitting on the field, having had no rain to dissolve them.

Boettcher concedes an acreage payment structure isn’t without drawbacks, but says it’s the best solution for some trying times.

“We realize an acreage payment program is one that could be open to abuse since it’s simple and quick to administer,” Boettcher said. “Is it a flawless solution? No. Is there anything better? We say probably not.”

This is the third straight year the County of Grande Prairie has declared an agriculture disaster zone. “We’ve had a lot of wonderful crops in the Peace but the anomalies of the last few years have been tough for producers,” said County of Grande Prairie Reeve Everett McDonald. He agrees with Boettcher that struggling producers in drought-stricken areas need financial aid as much as their flooded counterparts. “One is just as devastating as the other,” he said.

Whether acreage cash payments have a place in that, McDonald is not sure, calling it a stop-gap measure.

“Farmers and municipalities would like to see a long-term sustainable plan for agriculture,” said McDonald. “We’re seeing loss of the small-to medium-size farms. Corporations are the only ones that can survive under current conditions. It’s starting to change the way of life in rural communities.”

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“It was felt that if producers in drowned-out areas were eligible for a $30-per-acre payment, $60 was fair for northwestern Alberta producers affected by drought.”

BEN BOETTCHER

M.D. OF FAIRVIEW

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