By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
2015 was a peculiar year in agriculture in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Prices were generally good, but Mother Nature left many in suspense as to whether or not they would be able to take advantage of them by extending a severe drought through to the end of July before relenting and allowing some moisture to reach parched fields and pastures. We saw chaos on the political front as Alberta’s new NDP government ushered in Bill 6 “The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.” But we also witnessed amazing strides in technology and crop production in 2015 which all bode well for the future of prairie agriculture. Recently Ag-Matters.com spoke with Lee Hart, president of the Alberta Farm Writers Association (AFWA), about all these issues to get a sense of the broader significance. The AFWA represents over 80 agricultural journalists and ag. communicators from a variety of industry leading farm and ranch publications and broadcasters. Lee Hart has over 30 years of agriculture journalism writing experience.
The drought that almost was
It looked like drought was going to wreak havoc on most dryland farming and pasture areas in Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan this past summer. Hay prices soared early in the year as a general shortage of feed sent many into panic buying mode. Round bales were selling for nearly $300 per bale at the height of the crisis. Hart says, in the end, it turned out a lot better than most producers expected given the bad start to the year.
“It was a drought that almost happened,” states Hart. “There was a certain part of the year where it looked really desperate for a big part of the province. Now some areas were really dry, and it never really let up. Having said that, there was more of the province where by the end of the season it wasn’t actually as desperate as it looked early on. Most of the farmers I talked to said they were really quite surprised when they went to start the combine and they got out into the field and discovered how good the crop really was.”
Hart credits the timely rains with helping to put an end to the sense of crisis setting into the farm community by June, but also improved varieties of grain and better production practices.
“There was some timely rain and that helped out and carried things along. I think it also says a lot about the technology that gets used, and the farming practices where we have improved soil moisture conservation efforts and improved varieties. We also have fairly good fertility programs; so even though you might get into a less than ideal growing season, the crops can still do fairly well.”
The hue and cry over Bill 6
Many in the Alberta farming community became very vocal and very upset about the passage of Bill 6 “The Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act.” Part of the anger was driven by what was perceived as a sudden shifting of the rules underfoot after decades of status quo on the farm employment front. Part of it was driven by a general distrust of the intentions of the NDP government itself, whom most farmers and ranchers never voted for in the May provincial election. When the dust settled Bill 6 still passed with some exemptions put in for unpaid chore work, 4-H and paid family members who do not wish to sign up for WCB.
Hart feels the anger over Bill 6 was disproportionate given other provinces have had some form of legislation to do with farm workers in place for decades now.
“It was a bill whose time has come,” states Hart. “Alberta was the only jurisdiction in Canada that was lacking in it. Part of me was a little bit disappointed, though, in the way the government surprised the industry with the bill. I was also surprised by the way the industry handled it. I personally think it was a bit of an over-reaction. Like saying things like this was the end of the Alberta family farm.”
Hart suspects when farmers look back on the Bill 6 debate in a few years time it won’t be wholly clear as to what everybody was so angry about.
“The dust will settle here next year, and everyone will get back to work. Agriculture is a business. It’s an industry. Yeah, it’s run by families to a wide extent, but they need to be matching what every other industry does in terms of its paid employees,” says Hart.
Huge strides in crop production
What excites Hart more than any other news story of 2015 on the agriculture front were the breakthroughs in farm technology, production and management practices he reported on throughout the year. Farmers are sometimes seen as being slow to embrace new technologies and practices, but Hart says that certainly does not apply to new standards being set in crop production.
“I was talking to some Alberta farmers earlier this year who had 135 bushels/ acre on a wheat variety. I was just thinking about all the management factors that went in to produce that. Along with another couple articles I worked on was the drive by some farmers to produce 100 bushels of canola/ acre. I think both of those things interest me because its really using farmers using the technology that’s out there and their management skills to maximize and push the limits on some crop production boundaries.
“That doesn’t mean everybody is going to go out there and produce a 100 bushels of canola per acre. When you look at the Canadian average of 35 bushels, you think that’s a long ways from 100, but when you start looking at it there are quite a few farmers that are up into 60 bushel range, and some even into that 70. It’s interesting to me when you start using all the tools, and some luck on your side a far as weather is concerned, and there is really lots of potential out there. The ability is certainly there to raise the bar,” says Hart.
A look ahead into 2016
It’s hard to judge at the beginning of January what the year ahead will look like, but given the signs in the market right now Lee Hart believes farmers and ranchers will probably not see huge gains in 2016 nor huge losses. Farmers, explains Hart, can look forward to decent prices but a somewhat shaky commodity market overall.
“I don’t think there’s a doom and gloom element out there about anything,” says Hart. “And I don’t think anyone is over the moon about anything either. It should be a fairly decent year, weather depending. Crop prices right now are sort of down from where they were a couple years ago, and I think that has people, to some extent, in a bit of a holding pattern. But prices are at a level where farmers can still make a dollar.”
On the livestock end of things, Hart expects prices to be down somewhat in 2016 as consumer demand for high quality beef cuts drops due to a poor economic conditions in the North America and world market. Efficiency will be key to profitability, says Hart.
“On the livestock side its probably the year when the worm is going to turn a bit perhaps. As long as the industry says ‘I am just going to go out there and be as efficient as possible, and do my best,’ it should be alright. Just kind of status quo kind of year, if you want to call it that.”
Hart says he has faith in producers to be able to face any conditions and still come out fairly well in what could be a challenging year ahead.
“I think farmers have always been adaptable, but I think they are much more prepared today for swings, whether it’s a drought or excess moisture or markets going up and down. They are much more flexible than they have been in the past. I think the industry is in a pretty good position overall unless something comes out of left field.”