Dry heat wilts crops

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City cuts back on water use

This spring’s hot, dry weather has some county farmers worried about a return to the days of the 2002 summer drought.

Soil moisture levels throughout the county are at record lows, according to Alberta Agriculture and Food officials, and that will likely eat into this year’s crops. The Canadian Wheat Board has predicted a 20 per cent drop in the amount of wheat, durum and barley harvested this year compared to last due to widespread dry conditions across the prairies.

“That deep red is a one-in-25 year low,” said Ralph Wright, a soil moisture specialist with Alberta Agriculture, pointing to a big red blotch on a soil moisture map of Sturgeon County. The county has seen one-in-six and one-in-12-year lows for precipitation since April (considered “low” and “very low” levels by the province), meaning there’s been no rain to replenish the soils.

The dry weather, combined with a late spring, has sapped yields and put farmers about two weeks behind schedule, said Humphrey Banack, chair of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers. Some canola farmers are already scrapping this year’s crop by plowing it under. “We’ve gone from a time of maximizing profit to [one of]minimizing losses.”

St. Albert has ordered its staff to cut back on water use because of the dry conditions, said Dan Rites, the city’s sewer and water manager. Fire training and pool draining are on hold until the city gets more water in its reservoir.

Walter Tappauf, who farms some 6,000 hectares west of St. Albert, worries that the province could be facing a drought like the one it went through in 2002 — a year when he lost about half his crops.

“Moisture is going to be critical in the next week,” he said. “If we don’t get any, it’s going to be a serious situation.”

Cold blessing and curse

Many of the current problems in the fields can be traced back to the cold spring. The cold saved water by reducing evaporation, Wright said, but also pushed back crop development by seven to 17 days. That makes it more likely that crops will still be growing when the fall frosts hit.

Low water levels slowed growth so much back in 2002 that Tappauf was still harvesting his fields in December. “It was not a fun year,” he said. “I really don’t want to do that again.”

Farmers also had to import hay from Ontario because there was none available here, he recalled — a situation that might happen again. “Some pastures have absolutely no growth on them,” he observed.

This weather is going to deliver a big hit to most farmers’ bottom line, Banack said. “There’s going to be nothing to sell.” Farmers will have to fall back on crop insurance and cut back on spraying to reduce their losses.

The city may ask residents to start saving water if reservoir levels keep dropping, Rites said, particularly when it comes to watering lawns. Most lawns need just an hour of water a week, he noted. “It may not be as green as some like it, but it will come back.”

Alberta usually gets about 110 millimetres of rain during the next four weeks, Wright said, which could help turn the crop situation around. “If we get normal precipitation starting now, that’s going to bring a fair amount of rain.”

But that doesn’t look to be in the cards, he added: Environment Canada is currently predicting below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures for the summer.

Still, he notes, those forecasts are only 50 per cent accurate. “Anything can happen,” in other words.

Moisture and precipitation maps are available at www.agric.gov.ab.ca.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.