Slow Start, Better Finish For Southern Special Crops

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After a shaky start, southern Alberta s special crops are finishing the year on a high note.

We haven t seen this kind of quality in a while, said Owen Cleland, manager of the Viterra bean plant in Taber. There s good colour and size and no weather damage.

The cold, wet spring delayed some seeding till June 15, very late for beans, and crops were only eligible for insurance with a special extension from AFSC. Some already-seeded crops drowned out in late-May rains. As a result, crops have matured at different times and harvest has been stretched out, but delivered better-than-average yields and very good quality.

Even better, edible bean prices are good this year, largely due to high soybean prices luring many American dry bean growers into the easier-to-grow crop. Cleland is relieved to see a good year for bean growers. After a couple of rough years, many growers contracted fewer acres and the 31,000 harvested acres are the lowest the plant has had since the mid- 90s.

We ve struggled to keep up our acreage the last few years, he said. We need a certain volume to keep the plant running in the black. It s hard for us as well as the growers.

The recovery is good news, since even longtime bean growers had been saying that if things didn t turn around, they d be looking for something different.

Cleland said yields are as high as 3,850 lbs. cleaned beans per acre, with prices of all types around 40 cents a pound.

We think pintos (prices) could go as high as 45 cents a pound, Cleland said. That s a lot better than the long-term average of 27 cents for most types. And it really helped growers that we didn t have a lot of disease issues this year; repeat fungicide applications really put a dent in profits, said Cleland.

The bean plant has expanded into buying garbanzo chickpeas and it also has some bean growers in Saskatchewan.

Good forage yields

Hay plants in southern Alberta are seeing abundant supplies of excellent-quality hay, but much of the timothy crop is going to U.S. plants to be processed for export. Yields are decent, says Darren Guidinger, sales manager for Wilbur-Ellis in Lethbridge. Prices for export are strong too. Things are the best they ve been in years for forages.

Around Cremona (northwest of Calgary), where Wilbur-Ellis has a plant, hay harvest was 90 per cent complete by September 1. But, even though demand for good-quality forage is strong, thousands of tonnes of hay are being pulled out of Alberta to plants in Washington. Since rates out of the Port of Seattle are so much cheaper, they can haul hay from southern Alberta.

Our volumes are up a little over last year. We re still exporting around 12,500 tonnes of timothy, about the same as last year, and probably 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes of alfalfa, mainly to the U.S. and the Middle East, said Guidinger. But we can t even come close to Seattle freight rates. And Los Angeles rates are probably another $1,000 a tonne lower.

Beets and potatoes

Beets are one of the last crops to be harvested, so harvest only started towards the middle of September, with the sugar factory starting up about five days later. It was a slow start because farmers had other crops to harvest, says Andrew Llewelyn-Jones of Rogers Sugar in Taber. Yields right now are around 20 or 21 tonnes, but we hope the average will be close to our long-term average of 23 tonnes.

On the bright side, the sugar factory is seeing better-than-usual sugar yields. Llewelyn-Jones suspects the wet spring weather denitrified and leached nitrogen from the soil leading to lower yields but higher sugar content.

With about 75 per cent of potatoes harvested, growers haven t had a great year, but yields are decent, considering the start, said Edzo Kok of the Potato Growers of Alberta. The cool start and drown-outs cut the crop s potential, but there were no serious disease issues this year. Rob Spencer, Alberta Agriculture fruit and vegetable specialist, saw some late blight in seed potato fields, but not at significant levels

It wasn t nearly as much as last year, he said. We didn t reach outbreak levels.

People were more aware of it and jumped on it quickly, spraying in commercial fields and pulling up and destroying affected tomato and potato plants in home gardens. I hope we won t have it next year.

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Weneedacertainvolumetokeeptheplantrunningintheblack.It shardforusaswellasthegrowers.

OWEN CLELAND

VITERRA BEAN PLANT

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