The highs and lows of 2013

The weather was cruel then kind, a trade deal raised export hopes and supply management 
fears, and the livestock sector had a mix of good and bad news

NATURE’S FURY: A woman is airlifted by helicopter, equipped with a cable and harness, from her flooded farm in Millarville in southern Alberta. 
She was stranded in the submerged tractor, as swollen waters from nearby Three Point Creek overtook the farm. Photo: Wendy Dudley
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Once again, time did not stand still.

History was rewritten as 2013 marked the first full year of an open market for wheat and barley.

And history was also preserved as the Waldron Grazing Co-operative signed a deal to protect 31,000 acres of prime grazing land forever.

But everyone wishes one new chapter had never entered Alberta’s history books — last June’s floods will go down as the second most costly natural disaster in Canadian history. While farms were largely spared, everyone was reminded of how merciless Mother Nature can be.

She also showed her kind side, giving most producers if not ideal growing conditions, then pretty darn good ones. The result was a bumper harvest, then long line-ups at elevators, and finally grain gridlock.

These and other stories make the top news list assembled by reporters Alexis Kienlen and Jennifer Blair along with editor Will Verboven.

Nature’s fury

It started in early June with a weather system that produced heavy rains in northern Alberta and then stalled over the south. Combined with saturated ground and snowmelt, the deluge first prompted flood warnings and then watches. And watch we did, as numerous rivers — including the Bow, Elbow, Red Deer, Highwood, Little Bow and South Saskatchewan and their tributaries — turned into raging torrents. Thirty-two states of local emergency were declared throughout the province and the town of High River was evacuated. The flood was the second most costly natural disaster in Canadian history.

But Alberta farmers were generally spared.

“Fortunately the flooding in agriculture areas was localized around waterways,” said provincial agriculture spokesperson Stuart Elson. “We didn’t have a lot of reports of widespread livestock loss. However, we do know that there were some agriculture operations that were impacted.”

There were some agriculture-related claims under the Disaster Recovery Plan, ranging from lost fencing to damaged buildings. But only 200 out of the 9,500 claims were associated with the floods and irrigation districts escaped with only a few minor problems in the Bow River and Eastern Irrigation District.

But a warning was issued to all Albertans.

“We need to be a lot better than we were before,” High River mayor, Craig Snodgrass told the Canadian Press last month. “Going back to normal isn’t an option for me.”

— Alexis Kienlen

End of an era

Prairie grain farmers entered uncharted territory with the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on Aug. 1, 2012, but the first full year of marketing freedom was celebrated by many.

“There were a few farm groups that were very nervous and thought they might see grain prices go way down,” said new Grain Growers of Canada president Gary Stanford, who farms at Magrath.

“From our point of view, it was a very good move for Western Canada and we can sell when we need to sell it for cash flow. You can deal with the grain companies that you’d prefer to deal with. From my perspective and the group’s perspective, it was a win-win.”

A bumper harvest and strong (albeit declining) prices were also a major part in helping farmers adjust to the new era and even NFU president Jan Slomp, a dairy farmer from Rimbey, admitted last month that “things have moved on.”

But the old CWB is being talked about for another reason: The plugged grain system has many yearning for the days when the wheat board had a strong voice when it came to rail movement.

And unlike the olds days, this debate isn’t just being held in coffee shops.

“Bring back the cwb,” one farmer tweeted during a recent Twitter conversation on grain movement and basis levels. “Then everyone is treated fairly. No winners. No losers.”

Bin buster

Grain bins and rail cars were filled to the brim as Alberta brought in a bumper harvest on most of the major crops. In the third quarter, Alberta’s farm cash receipts totalled a record $9.1 billion, the highest in Canada. Total field crop production in 2013 was nearly 27 million tonnes — a record-setting yield.

It was a good year practically everywhere, including the U.S., which rebounded strongly from the 2012 drought.

“We had tighter supplies but now we’ve moved into the current crop year where Mother Nature is co-operative around the world and co-operative here in Alberta,” said Charlie Pearson, crop market analyst with Alberta Agriculture.

“The end result has been bigger crops and we’re going to see production exceed consumption for most crops. The bigger supplies around the world are putting some pressure on prices.”

That’s especially true this winter as plugged elevators mean weak basis levels.

Many producers are in the best financial shape of their lives, and will be content to ride things out, waiting for grain to move and basis to improve. But those needing cash flow now — such as younger farmers just starting out or those who have extended themselves to buy land or upgrade equipment — are in a different boat.

“It will be the guys who have bills to pay and have quite a bit of debt that will have to be price-takers in this market so that they can actually get someone to take their grain,” said Andy Kirschenman, a producer in the Medicine Hat area.

Historic agreement

Much of modern Alberta would be unrecognizable to those who lived here a century ago.

Unless they visited 130-year-old Waldron Ranch, situated on prime grazing land along the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

And a century from now, it will still look the same, thanks to a historic conservation agreement struck by the Waldron Grazing Co-operative and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

For $37.5 million, the conservancy purchased a conservation easement from the co-op that will shield nearly 31,000 acres from cultivation, subdivision, and development.

“As a conservation organization, we try to conserve places that have high conservation value,” said conservancy official Larry Simpson. “The Waldron certainly fits that description.”

Although the deal sets out standards for caring for the land, the 72 ranchers in the co-op will just keep doing what they have been doing.

“We know how to graze our ranch, and we don’t want somebody telling us how to change it,” said co-op chair Tim Nelson.

If all goes according to plan, Waldron will be preserved in perpetuity.

“We’re going to do our very best to keep this landscape agriculturally productive, ecologically functional, and inspiring for everyone,” said Simpson.

Controversial deal

The name is a mouthful — the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement — but after five years of negotiation, you’d expect the proposed trade deal between Canada and Europe would indeed be comprehensive.

Agriculture and food are main components of the deal, and federal officials were tossing around big numbers when discussing what it could mean for Canadian exports — $600 million more in beef exports, $400 million more in pork, and $100 million more in grains and oilseeds.

“The Canadian government has secured real and substantial access to one of the world’s few billion-dollar export markets, and they did it ahead of our major competitors,” said Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance.

In all, it could mean an extra $1.5 billion of Canadian food and agricultural products could be heading to Europe.

However, ‘could’ is the key word.

It’s expected to take another two years just to ratify the deal and Canadian exporters will then have to elbow aside others already providing those products to the lucrative European market.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers fear of a flood of gourmet European cheeses made from heavily subsidized milk will pour into Canada because the deal will double tariff-free access to 30,000 tonnes annually.

Others worry about the precedent.

“This is the first time the government has taken a piece of supply management and used it as a negotiating tool,” said David Hyink, vice-chair of Alberta Chicken Producers.

Harmony Beef

Rising cattle prices and lower feed costs likely top the 2013 highlights list for beef producers.

But another bright sign for the industry came in October, when it was announced the long-shuttered Rancher’s Beef plant in Balzac will reopen under new management next summer.

“It’s an excellent plant, (but) we’ve got an awful lot of work to do on the inside,” said new owner Rich Vesta of the facility, which will process up to 775 head a day under the name Harmony Beef.

Vesta, a well-regarded 47-year veteran in the beef sector, said accessing global markets, specifically the EU, will be a priority.

“As I understand it, this is the largest EU-approved plant in Canada, so I’m sure that will be a big part of our focus,” he said.

The trick will be meeting demand in those markets, said Doug Sawyer, past chair of Alberta Beef Producers.

“We’re struggling with our really small plants to be able to service some of the markets that are out there,” he said.

But Vesta said he’s up for that challenge.

“In terms of capital, expertise, and know-how, we think we’re the right people to do this, and we’re excited about the opportunity,” said Vesta. “We look forward to marketing Alberta beef.”

Checkoff woes

Three years after the implementation of Bill 43, the checkoff chickens are coming home to roost for Alberta Beef Producers.

The organization has seen a 30 per cent reduction in income because the bill allows for a refund of checkoffs. Most of the refund requests came from large feedlots.

ABP has already cut various projects and research activities, and heads into 2014 wondering how much longer it can afford to foot 30 per cent of the budget of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

That could have a big impact on the national association’s efforts to develop markets for Canadian beef and deal with trade issues such as the U.S. COOL legislation, which continues to depress prices north of the border.

“Our reduced income is going to hurt the industry in the long run,” said past ABP chair Doug Sawyer.

There was better news on a $1-per-head non-refundable national cattle checkoff.

ABP and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association struck a deal in March to extend the mandatory checkoff to March 31, 2014.

Sawyer had hoped for a five-year agreement, but said the one-year extension creates “a bit of stability” for the Beef Cattle Research Council and Canada Beef Inc.

Better? Really?

The commercials sure got noticed on Alberta ranches — and no doubt had many beef producers yelling at their TV sets as an A&W pitchman extolled the company’s pledge to use “better beef.”

The fast-food chain announced this fall that its burgers would be made from beef containing “no added hormones.”

“As we started looking at consumer behaviour and preferences, Canadians have more and more interest in the food that they eat,” said Susan Senecal, chief marketing officer for A&W.

“We thought that we should take up the challenge to see if we could deliver that beef to our customers.”

Consumer response to the announcement was generally positive, but the move earned mixed reviews from cattle producers, who were unhappy with the message the campaign sent to consumers about the safety and quality of Canadian beef.

Despite the backlash, A&W plans to expand its meat offerings without added hormones as well as introducing steroid-free beef in the coming year. The company also pledged to source more of its beef from Canadian producers who meet the program’s criteria, in addition to supplies from Australia.

“We look forward to having even more Canadian ranchers join with A&W as we launch into hormone- and steroid-free beef,” said Senecal.

‘W5’ egg farm exposé

The video footage shot at two Alberta egg farms and aired on CTV’s “W5” last fall was very graphic. In addition to crowded and dirty conditions, the video showed a practice called “thumping” — killing sick or injured birds by smashing their heads on concrete or some other hard surface.

It was “disturbing,” said Susan Schafers, a Stony Plain-area egg farmer.

“It was … certainly not very representative of what happens on egg farms here in Alberta or even across Canada,” she said of the welfare concerns at KuKu Farms and Creekside Grove Farms, both located near Edmonton.

In the wake of the video’s release, Egg Farmers of Alberta is creating policies to reinforce best management practices, including a shift toward enriched egg-laying cages. Earlier this year, the board approved a resolution to begin the transition away from conventional cages in 2014.

“We’ve seen the direction that the industry is going in for several years,” said spokesperson David Webb.

But any changes adopted by Egg Farmers of Alberta will be based on hard data, not politics, he added.

“We don’t want to make a decision based on assumptions, and we don’t want it to be based on pressure from activists,” he said.

An announcement on when the transition will begin is expected early this year.

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