On Alberta’s dryland farms, reflections on a devastating year and an eye for what’s next

Just north of the town of Vulcan, Alta., Snow falls on Markert Seeds, a dryland farm that grows wheat, barley, rapeseed, peas and flax.

The first snowfall of the year means that the autumn work on the farm has been completed. The moisture comes as a welcome relief after the summer, when droughts destroyed operations across southern Alberta.

Ron Markert, president of Markert Seeds, has just harvested his 50th crop on the operation. He has seen good years and bad years, and his experience has taught him how to prepare for the latter.

But like all dryland operations in southern Alberta, the challenges of the past year have hit hard.

“When we look at the numbers, we had about a third of a crop of what is an average crop,” Markert said. “Some were worse, rapeseed was probably worse than anything else. But wheat, barley and peas were all down.”

Ron Markert, chairman of Markert Farms, says most of the grain containers on the property are usually full. But this year he can knock on some of the bins and hear echoes echoing inside – they are empty. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Alberta experienced scorching heat above 35 C for days this summer, setting record highs. A number of provincial municipalities declared agricultural disasters due to drought.

Farmers in southern Alberta experienced a better harvest than expected in 2020. This made some cautiously optimistic after three previous years of drought-like conditions.

This year, crop insurance is important. But for less experienced farmers, even a challenging summer like this can lead to high levels of stress in the past.

“The more [drought] you have, the worse it gets. It just drives you further and further down, “Markert said.

Impact on mental health

Markert’s son Lee, who is the operations director of operations, said farmers his age across the province are now facing some difficult decisions.

“People in my generation are really getting into the time in their lives where they have kids to look after and trying to get them through school and sports,” he said.

“You’re throwing it all away and you’ve potentially got into a stressful situation when the crop is not there to support them.”

When it comes to drought conditions in southern Alberta, Lee Markert says it is important to “appreciate the good and prepare for the bad.” (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Humphrey Banack is a grain farmer in central Alberta and a board member of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. He said that when the weather does not cooperate, farmers on dry land can only see their crops wither.

“It plays really hard mentally on people when you see this happen,” Banack said. “There’s your livelihood in the field, you have made your plans, and all of a sudden those plans change.”

Economic consequences for nearby cities

The impacts are not only felt by the agricultural population.

Ghassan Hamdan, owner of Mama’s Pizza and Pasta in Vulcan, says the impact of fighting crops, coupled with the effects of the pandemic, has spread to businesses in the community.

“We lost more than 55 percent of the business,” Hamdan said. “And we’re trying to stay open, but I do not know how long we can fight this.”

Ghassan Hamdan, owner of Mama’s Pizza and Pasta in Vulcan, says the downturn in the agricultural industry has seriously affected his bottom line. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Local farmers used to come into his business twice a week for dinner. Hamdan said he sees the same people twice a month, if that.

“The situation affects everyone. The workers, the farmers, everyone,” he said.

Several deteriorating growth conditions

Stefan Kienzle is a professor of geography at the University of Lethbridge, who has created an interactive website that lets Albertans explore how climate is changing.

Dryland farmers in southern Alberta, especially those living west of Lethbridge, are facing several worsening growing conditions, Kienzle said.

“Number one, they have less annual rainfall, especially in the summer,” Kienzle said. “The most important thing is that the change in precipitation can be a natural cycle, so at the moment we can not make a clear connection to climate change.”

Stefan Kienzle, a professor of geography at the University of Lethbridge, says farmers on dry land in southern Alberta are facing several worsening growing conditions. (Google Meets)

At the same time, farmers on dry land are facing higher evaporation rates due to higher temperatures and a longer growing season, Kienzle said, resulting in drier soils.

“The increase in evaporation is 100 percent associated with climate change,” he said. “Then of course we have heat waves, like the one we faced this year … that heat wave sucked the remaining soil moisture out of the ground and really gave a lot of stress to the dryland farmers.”

On top of that, farmers on dry land also face an increased risk of pests, such as the grasshopper infestation this summer, due to the favorable conditions that very hot and dry soil conditions provide.

“The last four out of five years, we had summer drought conditions,” Kienzle said. “So that means there was stress for the farmers on the dry land, not just in 2021, but quite a few years before.”

A universal experience on dryland operations

When it comes to other dryland operations in southern Alberta, the mood is the same – this year was challenging and many are taking the cold season ahead as a chance to reset.

Nichole Neubauer owns and operates Neubauer Farms with her husband. She said her family farm has been around since 1910.

“Our dryland crops produced only a fraction of what they wanted,” she said. “That was probably about a quarter of what we wanted on average over the last 10 years.”

The consequences of the downturn in the dry farming industry have extended to those communities that depend on their success, such as Vulcan, Alta. (Joel Dryden / CBC)

Garry Lentz, who farms on a dry land 10 miles east of Medicine Hat, said crop insurance largely only covers production costs.

“There is no profit to be made this year in agriculture,” he said. “It’s a big disappointment. It puts everything on hold as you have planned.”

Dryland farms in other provinces, such as Grace Hill Farms in southwestern Saskatchewan, were also hit hard by this year’s drought. (Posted by Hart Smith)

And the challenges also extend to agriculture outside of Alberta.

Hart Smith farms with his father at Grace Hill Farms, a multigenerational organic grain farm in southwestern Saskatchewan.

“Most of our crops, and the neighbors’ crops, did not do well,” Smith said. “This is my first year as a farmer. For me, this year is one of my best and hopefully worst years ever.”

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge agency to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Joel Dryden. History ideas and tips can be sent to [email protected].

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