Prairie farm leaders peg water damage in the billions

CNS Canada — Farm leaders from Manitoba and Saskatchewan hope a new lobby group of stakeholders from both provinces can bring some long-term solutions to excess water problem that have led to billions of dollars in damages.

Last week about 150 people met in Regina to discuss the way forward for the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative. [Related story]

The group will work with the various levels of government to address water issues caused by the Assiniboine, Souris and Qu’Appelle River river systems that make up the Assiniboine Basin.

A wet spring delayed planting for several crops while a major rain event on the July long weekend actually submerged some crops in standing water and halted the progress of several more.

This year’s water problems are just the latest in a series of many in the past decade says Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS).

“When you get that much water over a 10-year period, the water table is rising; the natural buffers,(which are) sloughs and marshes are full. Only a very small percentage of those are drained,” he said.

Hall added he’s already concerned about next spring due to the high water table.

Water in Manitoba led to 980,000 unseeded acres this spring, according to Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).

“There were also about 600,000 acres that were seeded and then flooded out,” he said, adding that many more flooded-out acres weren’t reported at all.

“I’m sure there’s lots of people around the basin having unreported losses but they’re just part of their average crop and yield,” he said, adding the actual tally could be between 2.5 million and three million acres.

Canola is one of the crops that is most affected by the excess moisture due to its sensitivity, both Hall and Chorney said. Barley is also considered one of the traditional “losers” in a wet year; soybeans are considered among the most resilient.

The economic impact of the water to the ag industry is staggering, according to Hall.

“So let’s just say there are six million acres between the two provinces with an average gross output of $300 an acre; (if you) times that by six million that’s $1.8 billion lost to the water,” he said.

That figure doesn’t include associated costs to smaller communities and rural municipalities, he added.

“A big penalty”

The livestock industry in Manitoba also wants to see measures taken to address the issue long-term.

Melinda German, general manager of the Manitoba Beef Producers, last week said some cattle producers were spending $80,000 to $100,000 to bring in feed after their forage supplies were ruined in 2014.

“A lot of growers in the southwest weren’t able to plant crops this year because it was too wet,” she said.

Such problems underscore the need to address the problem sooner, rather than later, Chorney said.

“It’s a big problem economically for farmers. There’s a component to our risk management opportunities: investing in preventative treatments is better than this re-occurring cost of trying to support farm programming,” he explained.

Chorney wouldn’t put a specific figure to the damage in 2014 but said it’s a multi-billion dollar problem.

“At today’s commodity prices you’re taking a big penalty with losses like this,” he said.

The next meeting of the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative is likely to take place in March.

— Dave Sims writes for Commodity News Service Canada, a Winnipeg company specializing in grain and commodity market reporting.

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