Wintry blast a ‘disaster’ for southern Alberta farmers

Flattened crops, smashed stalks and sodden, muddy fields are causing distress across much of southern Alberta, where just days ago farmers were harvesting in 20 C weather.

The rare early September snowstorm that downed trees and snarled traffic in urban communities wreaked havoc in agricultural areas, pummelling mature crops that — in any normal year — would be getting combined right now.

“It’s horrible,� said Matt Sawyer, who farms in the Acme area northeast of Calgary. “Last night we weren’t too far off from bringing the snowmobile out and cruising around in the stubble, that’s how bad it was. We have 1,000 acres left to swath, and that stuff’s flatter than a pancake right now.�

Around 13 per cent of Alberta’s crop had been harvested when the snow began Monday. On many farms, much of what was still standing has been knocked down under the weight of the heavy, wet snow. While the crop should still be salvageable, it will be significantly harder for the combines to pick it up off the ground to harvest it — and farmers will have to wait until everything dries out before getting back to work.

“It’s a race,� Sawyer said. “The time is ticking away to put this crop in the bin, and that’s what makes a lot of guys nervous.�

The other big worry is quality. Excessive moisture can cause problems including sprouting and discoloration, degrading the crop and affecting the farmer’s bottom line.

Gary Stanford, who farms just south of Lethbridge where the moisture fell as heavy rain instead of snow, said grain prices this fall are not as good as they have been in recent years. If farmers also have to take a hit because of quality, it will cost them.

“Just from going to a Grade 1 wheat to a feed grade wheat, we’re going to be losing about 30 per cent of our income,� Stanford said. “So it’s going to be more expensive to harvest, and then we’re going to lose income because of the quality.�

Alberta Agriculture crops specialist Mark Cutts said much depends on how quickly the sun comes out and things dry up.

“If the weather does settle back down and people are able to get back into their fields and start their combines, it (harvest) will get done. But if we continue to have unsettled weather, that could cause us challenges as we get into October,� he said.

Cutts added it’s too early to estimate the financial cost of the unseasonable snow, but acknowledged there will be one if farmers aren’t able to get the crop off efficiently or quickly.

“Certainly, if you’re leaving a certain proportion of the crop behind in every field, 10 to 15 per cent, that will certainly add up,� he said.

Environment Canada is calling for the sun to return Thursday with temperatures as high as 24 C by early next week. But that was small consolation Wednesday for Jay Schultz, whose fields east of Calgary were buried under eight inches of heavy snow.

“It’s a pretty major disaster,� Schultz said. “Sometimes you worry about the last couple of fields in October, in terms of snow coming and wrecking everything. But this is the first week of September. This is unheard of.�

Schultz added that his crop didn’t grow as well as he would have liked this year anyway, because of drought early in the summer and excess rain in August.

“Now all the crops are down. It’s going to be a tough harvest,� he said.

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