Alberta counties declare agricultural disaster as drought hits crops

CALGARY – From drought to grasshoppers, it’s been a tough year for Alberta farmers, with some counties declaring states of agricultural disaster.

“We are just incredibly dry, dryer than we have been in approximately 50 years,” said Garett Broadbent, Leduc County’s director of agricultural services.

The county has called a special meeting for July 21 to declare a state of agricultural disaster. Two other counties — Parkland and Mackenzie — have already done so, and several others are considering following suit.

“From pretty much seeding, we haven’t had any significant rainfall,” said Broadbent. “Our municipality wants to bring awareness to this at the provincial and federal levels.”

Large swaths of Alberta have experienced low rainfall since April, with many areas receiving well under 40 per cent of normal precipitation.

“Our annual crops, cereals, oil seeds, are really starting to suffer,” said Broadbent. “Our pasture, hay lands are really, really suffering.”

The dry conditions have also allowed pests like grasshoppers to flourish, with parts of Leduc county plagued by the insects.

“In areas where the grasshoppers did hit, whatever was standing was hit really hard,” said Broadbent.

Of all the crops, hay and pasture land have suffered most, with an average of 55 per cent of crops rated as poor across Alberta. The figure rises as high as 81 per cent in the northwest.

That’s where Mackenzie County sits, and it was the first county to declare a state of agricultural disaster in late June.

County reeve Bill Neufeld said officials made the declaration in an attempt to get help for cattle farmers who rely on those crops to feed their herds.

He wants government action on possible feed subsidies because feed costs keep climbing, or tax deferrals for ranchers when they sell their cattle so they can rebuild herds later.

“You can get pasture insurance . . . but that doesn’t help anything if you’re going to decimate your cattle herds because of the drought, if farmers have to sell off their cattle.”

And even for grain farmers, insurance doesn’t go very far.

“Insurance will probably cover the input costs, but that still doesn’t make any payments on the equipment and if anybody has land owing,” said Neufeld.

There could be some relief in the days to come for parts of the province, with 40 to 60 millimetres of rain forecast in the hardest-hit areas.

“Rain is coming to some of the driest portions of the Prairies so it’s much welcome news,” said Bill McMurtry, a meteorologist at Environment Canada.

Since the rain is forecast to fall over a few days, it will have a better chance of soaking into the ground, with more expected later next week, McMurtry said.

“This will help, but we’re still going to be a ways off normal yet.”