Stephen Vandervalk has seen some tough, dry years on his southern Alberta grain operation since he started farming. But never this dry — and never this tough.
“We’re combining the worst crop we’ve ever combined in the history of the farm right now,” the Fort Macleod-area grain farmer said earlier this month. “We’re seeing 10- to 15-bushel barley, and I’ve got a field of wheat that’s running at basically zero.
“It’s about as bad as it gets.”
But the big fear now is that things are so dry, this sort of bad could stretch into next year.
‘Nothing in the ground’
Right now, soil moisture levels are low across nearly 90 per cent of the agricultural areas of the province, despite some recent rains boosting moisture to near-normal levels in some locales (including some in the hard-hit south).
But near normal at this time of year is “quite dry,” said Ralph Wright, manager of Alberta Agriculture’s agrometeorology applications and modelling unit.
“About 20 to 30 per cent of the agricultural areas now are close to one-in-50-year lows for soil moisture,” Wright said on Aug. 13. “We are definitely dry, and it started drying out for most of the province through July last year.
“Across the province right now, we need continued precipitation.”
And a break from the heat, he added.
“We can have near-normal moisture or slightly below-normal moisture, and it might be OK,” said Wright. “It’s when you add the heat in there that things become unpredictable.”
That’s what happened on Vandervalk’s farm this year.
“We had a little bit of rain here and there, but with the heat, the soil just couldn’t take it,” he said.
As a result, subsoil moisture levels — which were low in some parts of the province to begin with — have depleted to nearly nothing. And it will take quite a lot of precipitation to get soil moisture levels back up to near normal.
“Generally west of Highway 2 on a medium-textured soil, we’re looking at soil moisture deficits anywhere between two to four inches, or 50 to 100 millimetres,” said Wright. “That’s basically an entire June rainfall.”
And Vandervalk doesn’t have much hope that his farm is going to see that level of moisture before next spring.
“Last year was probably a record dry year and the three years before that were very dry as well,” said Vandervalk. “There’s no soil moisture whatsoever, nothing in the ground, so we’re not set up good for next year.”
Fall rains are the key
No soil moisture reserves heading into spring means he would be entirely dependent on timely rains next season — a very worrying prospect.
“It’s like having zero money in your bank account and hoping you’re going to get a paycheque,” he said. “If you had a wet year before, you can live off those savings for two or three months without rain. But right now, we have nothing and no real hope of rain in sight.
“They’re talking about the drought being just as bad next year. We won’t even be able to get a crop germinated until it rains.”
That’s a concern for farmers across the Prairies right now, said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and markets for MarketsFarm (a division of the company that owns this newspaper).
“If you look at the last three months of the growing season, most of the Prairies have had between two and three inches below-normal precipitation,” Burnett said on Aug. 10.
“If we don’t receive enough subsoil recharge, we certainly could have another year of stressful growing conditions.”
How much is enough will depend on the region, but generally, above-normal precipitation this fall and winter will be needed.
“More rains are better at this point in time,” said Burnett. “I think it’s a tall order to ask us to get back to the normal subsoil moisture levels this fall, but it would be nice to see at least enough rain to start the process.”
Moisture typically begins to store in the soil in September and October, and in areas where the snowpack lingers all winter, the spring melt can help a lot.
That’s not the case on Vandervalk’s farm though.
“We don’t get much for snow cover and snow cover down here doesn’t really do much,” he said.
“Nine times out of 10, we have chinooks and it all melts while the ground is frozen, so it just runs off.”
But if conditions improve to near-normal levels and stay that way until spring, most producers should be in good shape for next year’s growing season.
“We’re right at the beginning of the storage period, so we’ve got a lot of time to bring these things up to normal,” said Wright.
“If we don’t get those fall rains, I think that’s cause for great concern. But at this point in time, I don’t think producers should have an undue amount of alarm.”
Balanced on a knife’s edge
But it’s definitely worrying.
“We tend in these dry years to take a year or two to recover our soil moisture,” said Burnett. “That’s something we’re just going to have to live with here for the next little while until we get an improvement in the moisture conditions.”
And when that might happen is anyone’s guess.
“We’re hoping that this pattern breaks, but we just don’t know,” said Wright. “Nobody can really tell when things are going to turn around.”
However, the 2001 drought is a good example that turnarounds do happen, he added.
Conditions heading into 2002 were looking “really bad” in southern Alberta, and producers were worried what the next growing season would bring. But the situation “completely turned around” in 2002, with ample moisture in southern Alberta and hot, dry conditions farther north.
“Within the space of 100 or 200 kilometres, we had serious moisture deficits through the central parts of the province, and we had good moisture through the southern parts of the province,” said Wright. “It’s just so unpredictable.”
That lack of predictability is only compounding the stress for southern Alberta growers like Vandervalk.
“Outside of prices being high, it’s basically as bad as it gets in Western Canada right now, especially in the south,” he said.
And that will take its toll.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to see people exiting the industry,” he said. “It’s happening already. People won’t be able to survive having no crop.
“If you didn’t have crop insurance, you’d be screwed. You couldn’t make it.”
Agriculture Financial Services Corporation has estimated that crop insurance payouts this year could top a billion dollars, but Vandervalk thinks it’s likely double — or even triple — that amount.
“I know what my farm is eligible for, and if you do that math based on a billion dollars, it’s not enough to cover more than a couple hundred farms,” he said.
“We’re talking about a complete failure. It’s quite dire.”
And Vandervalk worries that this is only the beginning of the hurt for southern Alberta farmers.
“We’re talking about a bigger issue here — we’re seeing the rivers starting to dry up. We’re seeing wells drying up. That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s a disaster,” he said.
“We’re on the cusp of something that I don’t even want to think about, and if nothing changes for next year, I don’t know what will happen.
“It’s so bad that we won’t even know what the consequences are until we get there.”
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