Environmental and weather conditions are going to be a major driving factor for the agricultural industry in the County of Wetaskiwin this spring and summer.
Steve Majek, director of agricultural services with the county, says dryness is a huge concern.
“People are getting itchy because the weather’s so nice and people want to get out in the field.” He added Alberta is prone to frost in early May, so there are pros and cons to getting out in the field and seeding too early.
The persistent spring winds, lack of rain and the mild winter have all contributed to the possibility of a drought this year.
“I would hope for our producers we would have moisture at the right time, whether that’s a dry summer or not. We got moisture at the right time last year,” said Majek.
Majek says despite the dry conditions last year the weather and crops were, for the most part, able to pull through in the end with producers bringing in 70 to 90 per cent of their yield, although the quality was not what some where hoping for.
“You can’t take away the importance of rain but dew does help,” said Majek. “Last year we had a nice heavy dew.”
With pastures to potentially grow more slowly because of the dryness producers may have to choose to feed their livestock longer or turn them out now and then start to feed again earlier at the end of the season. Majek says there is no guaranteed choice for success and it is all about individual management styles.
“The concern always is… is there enough moisture to produce enough feed for your animals?” noted Majek.
He added there are concerns of a feed shortage. “In 2015 we did have producers purchase feed from outside the area.”
Historically, the County of Wetaskiwin is an exporter of agricultural commodities. “Very rarely are we an importer. Last year more food was brought in than what was produced,” said Majek.
With the winter offering below average precipitation there is also the issue of water availability. Majek says some producers are already asking about pumping equipment to fill their dugouts. The problem partially stems from last year’s frost not being deep enough and the little moisture there was all soaking into the ground.
As per usual the most planted crops across the county will be the traditional barely, wheat, oats and canola; as well as some faba beans and potato. “I don’t expect that will change. We’re used to growing those crops, we’re comfortable growing those crops,” said Majek.
He explains one dry year is not going to make farmers completely change their operations; and most do not have the cash flow needed to switch the crops and equipment.
The drier weather will help combat the crop disease cycle, says Majek. “Most like more moisture.”
“The drier weather brings grasshoppers. We’ll have more the insects as opposed to the disease cycle,” he added.
Where livestock are concerned Majek says areas such as the beef market seem to be holding well.
Looking onward, Majek believes the future of agriculture is trans-pacific partnerships. “Having those countries open up for Canadian markets would be a blessing for us.”
However, stringent markets with barely-achievable expectations could pose problems for producers to move forward and actually take advantage of the international opportunities.
“Agriculture boils down to do you have the in market for what you’re producing and if you do you’re successful,” said Majek.
The Government of Canada says farmland values have risen 10 per cent in the last year. Majek says he is not sure what direct impact the government’s statement will have on county producers but since 1999 the value of land in the county has increased.
Majek says at the turn of the century land was between $1,500 and $2,700 per acre. Now it is closer to $3,800 to $4,000 per acre. “We do know there’s some that sold for over $5,000.”
He added the market is not necessarily expanding and it is a complicated issue. For those looking to sell the increased value is a plus, as they will get more for the land.
It is common for those who own and work farms to have another off-site job to subsidize the operation. Majek says right now many of those, especially if they worked in the oilfield industry, now do not have the extra income and will not be able to expand their operations.
Majek also explained there is another side; the average age of farmers across the province is 57 years and there are some who are established enough to be able to expand their operations, buy more land and bring the next generations of their families into the industry.