Farmers wrap grueling harvest before snow flies

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Sturgeon County farmers wrapped up a gruelling harvest this week, snatching their crops from the jaws of winter at the last moment.

County farmers told the Gazette that they had finished or nearly finished the 2017 harvest as of this week – just in time to dodge this region’s first big blast of winter. Environment Canada was predicting sub-zero temperatures and flurries for much of the Edmonton region this week, both of which would put harvest activities on ice.

This year’s harvest has been a slow one, Alberta Agriculture reports. A combination of a rainy fall plus a late start to seeding put Edmonton-area farmers far behind schedule, with roughly 59 per cent of all crops collected as of Oct. 17 (the date of the most recent provincial crop report) – much less than the 89 per cent that’s typically done at that time.

Tam Andersen of Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm said she had brought in about 90 per cent of her crops as of Monday, but still had some canola and vegetables left to do.

“It’s actually worse than last year, amazingly, if that’s possible,” she said, as she has more canola out this year than then.

Wet conditions last fall meant that many farmers couldn’t finish their harvest until this spring, which delayed the start of this year’s crops.

But a stretch of rain-free weather in late October helped most county farmers finish on time, with most now working on post-harvest activities such as filling ruts and applying fertilizer, said André Montpetit of Sturgeon Valley Fertilizer.

Not having a repeat of last year was a huge relief, he said.

“If we had another year like the last one, there would be a lot more (farm) auction sales.”

Challenging harvest

The biggest challenge for most farmers this fall was the weather, Montpetit said. It kept raining every three or so days for much of the last two months, so there weren’t any long stretches where workers could get equipment into the fields. What would normally be a three-to-four week harvest on his Legal-area farm took about two months as a result.

“This harvest was not a cake-walk. It went on forever.”

Alberta Agriculture crop specialist Harry Brook said he was concerned about the Westlock-Barrhead region, much of which still had significant crop in the fields as of Monday. This week’s snow would basically shut down any further harvest, which could strand a lot of crop over winter.

“It’ll almost be a repeat of last year, but on a smaller scale.”

That would mean more delays to next year’s planting and more fiscal hardship for farmers, Brook continued.

“You can’t really afford two years of delayed crop harvest, reduced quality and loss of income. Sooner or later, the banker comes calling.”

Although many farmers will have to break out their grain dryers to handle wet crops, Jeff Nonay of Sturgeon County’s Lakeside Dairy said the crops in his area looked pretty decent, as did market prices for them.

“For the guys who got the crop off, it’s quite a good year.”

Wet crops could easily rot if they’re not properly dried before they go in the bin, Brook said. He advised farmers to monitor their moisture levels and break out the grain dryers if needed.

While he wasn’t yet convinced that challenging harvests like this one were the new normal, Brooks said Alberta farmers might need to invest in grain dryers and go back to faster-growing, but lower-yield varieties to account for more variable weather.

Nor was this necessarily the last week of harvest season, he continued – there’s still a chance that we’ll get a week of warmth in November as we did last year.

“Harvest season is drawing to a close, and hopefully most people will be done.”

The next Alberta Crop Report comes out Nov. 3.

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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.