By Erika Mathieu
The only universal challenge in farming is the challenges producers face year after year are never universal.
So far in 2023 Alberta grain producers have navigated federal policy changes, unpredictable weather, issues with drought and irrigation infrastructure, and the official merger of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions into the new Alberta Grains Commission. Although not exclusive to grain producers, the unique mix of these challenges is unique to grain producers in southern Alberta.
David Bishop, Director at Large at Alberta Grains, grows wheat near Barons a small village in Lethbridge Country aptly known as the “Wheat Heart of the West”.
The recent amalgamation of the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley Commission, into the unified Alberta Grains symbolizes collaboration and synergy between two formerly separate commissions which shared substantial overlap in terms of their mandates and resources. Bishop said of the merger, “hopefully it gives us a bigger presence in the policy world, which we seem to be getting more and more involved in than we ever used to.”
Bishop said research remains a top priority for the commission, but added heavy involvement in that realm is often indicative of objectionable circumstances. The commission’s primary focuses are in research, policy, marketing and communications, but Bishop said when the commission is busy on the policy front, it usually means there are lots of opportunities for change.
“If we didn’t have to do any policy, it means things are going very well, but when we do a lot of policy work, that means there have been a some issues that we’re trying to tackle.”
In 2021, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) determined grain growers would no longer be permitted to use the broad-spectrum insecticide lambda-cyhalothrin (sold under names such as Silencer, or Matador), on crops intended to be used as livestock feed. Alberta Grains continues to monitor this decision, citing concern for competitiveness for farmers, “augmented by a lack of clarity on how the new provision will apply to grain brought in from other counties to be fed to animals.”
Bishop said, “on the policy front, we’ve lost some of our tools that we use,” including lambda-cyhalothrin. He said the AWC and ABC “lobbied hard on the neonic (sic) issue so we wouldn’t lose neonic because we had nothing to replace it with.”
Transportation continues to be something the commission monitors closely. Although a new tentative deal was reached in the recent B.C. port strike, the strike caused days-long trade stagnation and resulted in an estimated $9.9 billion worth of traded goods to be delayed.
“The port strike, sure made us a little nervous,” said Bishop, “thankfully, it’s over and didn’t last too long,” he continued, noting that blockades and transportation strikes remain a top concern for grain farmers with broad economic impacts.
Bishop said “there are different issues all the time,” for Alberta’s grain farmers, but added, right now a key challenge for many has been the lack of rain. “The big one right now is drought. In the past it has been things like transportation or market access.”
Bishop added infrastructure issues with the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District’s (LNID) main canal created challenges this year for many producers down south when early season water was not made available to producers within the district.
Repairs to the LNID Headworks Canal in the spring caused significant challenges for producers and required armour and liner replacement for one kilometre of canal in early May. Several updates from the LNID in early-mid May reported ongoing leaks and low or delayed allocation. By June 8 the LNID published the following indicating, “the Alberta Government is well aware that damages are occurring and have occurred already,” and continued to operate at 20 cms.
On June 12, an update posted to LNID’s website noted, “the Board never imagined that we would be in the situation that we are faced with today,” after several years of low canal flows the LNID learned one of the liners having reached the end of its usable life would require relining and anticipated this would be completed prior to the 2023 water season. The update called the situation, “a mess,” and informed stakeholders, “with the low flows the District has been receiving and the storage that we have in Keho Reservoir, we are trying to manage the water in such a way that everyone gets to irrigate and Keho Reservoir will last for the season. Only a very small amount of the water that has flowed down the canal has gone into Keho, so it goes without saying that we are definitely running a deficit on water.”
With producers facing “devastation”, the LNID had inquiries from producers as to why a state of emergency was not invoked but LNID noted the situation, “does not fall under (the) framework of state of emergency. It needs to be a life and limb threat to humans and this will never qualify, and said questions as to who is at fault, “will be asked and investigated at a future date.”
Bishop called the situation, “an unfortunate set of circumstances that never should have happened. We never should have been without water because of their not hiring the right people or whatever the reasoning was because they’re pretty quiet about it, why it took forever to get our canal fixed so we could get some irrigation and we’re still not at 100 per cent. There’s still some issues that need to be rectified.”
The current allocation remains lower than usual for this time in the season. “We’re only up to 16 inches instead of our usual 21, but we’re happy to be there right now.”
With temperatures expected to soar again in the coming days, Bishop said normal wear and tear including the current issues with the LNID’s pumping station is prompting producers to once again cut back on watering until the issue is rectified.
“It was the canal and delay in getting that fixed in a timely manner and the mistakes they made doing it that really kind of irked most of us in southern Alberta (…) it’d be different if there wasn’t water in the Oldman River, but when there’s lots of water and we can’t get it because of infrastructure issues. It should never have happened.”
Bishop said, “I don’t perceive that being a long-term (issue). Hopefully they get everything done on it so we have full water right away next year. We’ll wait and see. If it isn’t there’ll be a lot of loud farmers next year.”