This could be the year when, in Saskatchewan, it’s too wet for ducks. Certainly, in the 38 Rural Municipalities and 20 small towns and villages where local governments have declared disaster because of heavy rain, residents have noticed that there aren’t many baby ducks on the sloughs and roadside marshes.
There’s not much healthy-looking grain growing in the fields alongside those roads, either, even though Crop Insurance extended the final date for insured seeding to June 20. By then, R.M.s in the north east and east central parts of the province had declared an agricultural disaster.
About nine million Saskatchewan farm acres were not planted this spring. Add another four million acres that were seeded then flooded out, and that’s 18 percent of Canada’s farmland that will not produce a crop this year. In large parts of the Vatnabyggð area, only 29 percent of seeding was completed and some farmers did not ever manage to get onto the land.
Danny Thorsteinson of Foam Lake has planted 51 crops. There has never been a time, until this year, when he has not been able to put one in. “I got a third in. One third is washed out. One third of the balance is turning yellow from too much moisture and not enough nutrients. The rain is leaching away everything you gained over the years. It’s all going down the creek,” he said.
“Our income is the crop. Not seeding is like your employer telling you that you are not getting any cheques this year,” he said. But there’s an added problem for farmers. It’s more than just not getting that cheque. “We still have to control the weeds on the unseeded acres. We know that land has to be maintained and ready for next year.”
By early June, when Saskatchewan’s agriculture minister was invited to fly over the fields in the Vatnabyggð area, he discovered the stark truth. “There were a couple of guys out there actually trying to do something out in the field and all you could see was ruts behind the tractor. It just highlighted the effect of what all this water is doing. I think probably the biggest concern is it’s not letting up,” the minister said.
He might have been carrying a crystal ball. Not only did the weather not get any better, it got worse. In order for a farmer to successfully plant a crop, the soil needs an adequate level of moisture down where the roots are going to grow, but those roots also need oxygen and too much water suffocates them. The farmer also needs the fields dry enough that he can safely run very large, very expensive equipment. Following a cold wet April, the skies opened in May. By June, the average day’s weather forecast brought storm warnings for potential severe thunderstorms with high winds and damaging hail with periodic threats of tornadoes.
At best, the crop that is out there is in fair condition, said Foam Lake R.M. Reeve Chris Gislason.
“There’s way too much moisture. There are a lot or acres where the crop has died out. It looks sick.”
By July 15, Gislason’s rain gauge had registered 20 inches of rain. The area would normally have eight inches by mid July. Average annual rainfall is 12 or 13 inches. “I can’t get out with the tractor and cultivate,” he said.
South of Foam Lake, at the end of June, several farmers were hit with a storm that dumped five inches of rain and six inches of hail in 45 minutes. “I was wading in hail up to my knees,” said one. The day after Canada Day, an F3 tornado, packing 300 km winds, cut a 50 km swath two kms wide through the Raymore farming community and the Kawakatoose First Nations reserve, destroying houses, out-buildings, trucks and farm equipment and tearing out 2.5 km of power lines.
Super-saturated land can’t absorb any more rain. “There was a time,” said a Saskatchewan meteorologist, “when we would have 20 mm of rain and it would all soak in. Now there is nowhere for it to go and we see immediate puddling.”
“I have hilly land,” said Lori Bonar, whose farm was hit by the rain and hail. “In the hollows, it’s damp in the evening, but in the morning, there is water running. The water is leaking out of the hills.”
Lakes are at flood level. Roads are washed out – a chunk of the Trans-Canada highway at the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta disappeared after a quiet little creek turned into a raging torrent that took out the culvert and the road collapsed. It was finally repaired, but the major highway west of Humboldt is still awash in water. Local traffic is rerouted down gravel roads and the heavy stuff is sent to Highway 16, the alternative Trans-Canada.
Quiet little creeks are in full flood. “My son called me,” said Harry Abtosway, who is 81. “He told me to brace myself. There was a two-foot wall of water coming at me down Milligan Creek.” Named after the first settler in the area, Milligan is typical of this province – flowing through flat land, it winds back and forth, twisting in on itself, a little high in the spring, because of the snow and the runoff, a narrow ribbon of water all summer and fall – except for this year. Where it crosses Highway 35 between Elfros and Wadena, Milligan has turned fields into a flood plain.
Terry Helgason, who farms south of Elfros, was hit with hail two inches across on Canada Day. Some of the stones were baseball-sized. He’s had 19 inches of rain. It’s so wet he can’t get across his fields and the rules call for farmers to keep weeds under control on unseeded acres. “I hired a high-wheel sprayer to spray what I couldn’t do,” said Helgason. And then he got another inch and a half of rain.
It isn’t just a concern about cereal crops – wheat and oats and barley – or the oilseeds, flax and canola, he said. It’s hay. If a farmer wants dry bales, he needs three or four days of sunshine to cure it. That’s not happening this year. “But if you put it up for silage, it’s too heavy to lift,” he said. Local farmers often bag green bales which turn into silage in the bag. Try moving it, he said, “and the tractor drops out of sight at the front wheels.” He, too, has seen that “every hollow is filled with water because it is bubbling out of the hills.”
The other problem for cattle men, said Danny Thorsteinson, is the quality of the grass that nourishes the animals all summer. “Grass growth is extremely good but it is not good grass,” he said. “It’s water grass. The moisture content is so high that every mouthful is more water than nutrient.” On the other hand, hay crops are looking good. But, he says, “If you can’t get off the main roads, you can’t get it. Those bales from last year that weren’t worth much are looking really good this year,” he said.
The provincial and federal governments are offering farmers $30 on their unseeded acres. Farmers who have crop insurance – and many do not because it is very expensive and they gamble that they’ll get at least some yield – get another $50, though there are some deductions. Chris Gislason said that it will cost him about $8 an acre for each application of chemical and for the fuel, not including wear and tear on machinery. He figures it will take three applications to do the job, which will fairly much eat up the $30.
It’s an even bigger problem for some local farmers, said Christie Dalman, who retired from farming near Wynyard two years ago. “A lot of the guys can’t get on the land to spray and they are hiring airplanes to do the job for them.” Around Wynyard, said Dalman, to the north is old lake bottom, sandier soil, which can absorb more moisture. The problem is with clay soils.
There is also a potential problem with wells. Saskatchewan Watershed Authority is offering free testing for flooded areas because of concerns about nitrates and E. coli and other bacteria getting into drinking water.
There are road closures everywhere in rural Saskatchewan. The gravel grid roads can’t handle the water. The Foam Lake R.M. Council leased a grader so that they would have four machines who could head out as soon as possible after each rain to try to save the roads as much as possible.
All four farmers say they’ve never seen a spring like this one. They point out that the true weight of the crisis hasn’t hit yet. Producers still have grain in the bins from last year. But when that’s gone, and the bills keep coming in, that’s when everyone is going to feel the results of this year’s weather. There are already some layoffs in rural areas – when farmers are not on the field, their equipment doesn’t need repairs and they don’t use fuel.
How do people cope?
Helgason was recently elected to the Emerald R.M. Council. The beavers are loving the weather and are busily building dams, plugging up culverts and causing more flooding. “When I can’t do anything, I can’t fix equipment, I can’t garden, I go out and clean out beaver dams,” he said. “It distracts me.”
Chris Gislason says he tries to take the attitude that he has more time to work on projects, to make repairs to buildings, and to see more family. Meanwhile, he’s counting on some warm windy weather – evaporating days, he calls them. This year’s crop is what it is, but it is essential for farmers to be able to get onto the land to repair their damaged acres before next spring.
Thorsteinson is taking time to listen to the talk around town. “The general public is taking notice about the farm situation,” he said. “I’ve had three people ask whether the price of flour and bread is going to go up. This may be a reality check for a lot of things.”
He has a suggestion for the farmers who have not been able to get a crop in and have time on their hands. “Every year you work your butt off and you have no time for your family. Let’s call this “The Year of the Family.” Let’s do things with the family that we didn’t do. It’s out of your hands. It’s nothing you caused.”
And Christie Dalman? “I’m so happy I am out of it,” he said. “This is my second year not farming. It’s a relief to be away from it.” Meanwhile, for everyone, there’s also a little Saskatchewan gallows humour.
Seems a reporter died and, as she waited in the judgment line, she observed that some souls were led away by St. Peter and immediately welcomed with cries of joy into heaven. Others were turned over to Satan, who threw them directly into the fiery pit. But, as she watched, she realized that, every so often, Satan would take a soul and dump it onto a slowly growing heap. She couldn’t stand it. She approached Satan.
“Excuse me, Sir Prince of Darkness,” she said. “I’m waiting in the judgment line, but I am a reporter and I couldn’t help noticing that you are selecting some souls to throw into a separate pile rather than into the fiery pit. Could you tell me why?”
“Oh my raging headache,” said Satan. “Those are Saskatchewan souls. They are too wet to burn.”