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Alberta farmer Dwayne Marshman measures the hight of his wheat crop, which should be at his waist, on his farm in the Canadian prairies near Rockyford, Alta. (Todd Korol/Reuters/Todd Korol/Reuters)
Alberta farmer Dwayne Marshman measures the hight of his wheat crop, which should be at his waist, on his farm in the Canadian prairies near Rockyford, Alta. (Todd Korol/Reuters/Todd Korol/Reuters)

Farmers start to write off year as drought parches Prairie land Add to ...

When the claims adjuster finished tabulating how much of Greg Becker's sun-scorched crop was salvageable this week, the final tally didn't surprise the veteran farmer: zero.

"The crops are done for this year, all done," said Mr. Becker, who's been farming near Kindersley, Sask., for 40 years. "They gave the okay to spray it all down. Everything. I've never seen anything like it."

All across western Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, farmers are scanning crop-insurance policies and calculating how short they'll be on payments this year as one of the worst droughts on record parches their land and their bank accounts.

The dry conditions are also wreaking havoc on local wildlife, prompting watering bans and spoiling Canada Day parties.

While some regions have seen the driest June on Environment Canada records, researchers who've studied longer periods of prairie weather say this could be the start of something worse.

"When you look at a thousand-year record, we've been pretty lucky since the West was settled," said Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina geography professor and research co-ordinator for the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. "We've had quite a favourable climate, largely avoiding the extremely dry conditions we've seen in the past."

Dr. Sauchyn put together the thousand-year record of prairie water levels using tree rings. Judging by the rings, the prairie climate could easily plunge into an extended drought similar to that of the 1790s, when the North Saskatchewan River went dry.

Climate models suggest that history may soon repeat. The region has experienced the two driest seasons on record - the last one coming in 2001-2002 at a $5.8-billion hit to the national economy - all inside the past 10 years.

"We can't possibly say with any certainty that this is a sign of global warming, but it's entirely consistent with global climate model projections," said Dr. Sauchyn. "All this means is it's highly probable we haven't seen the worst of it yet."

Already nine counties in Alberta have declared states of emergency due to extreme dryness. The province banned all private Canada Day fireworks celebrations. Restrictions on fires and watering have been instituted all over the region.

It hasn't been easy on the animal world, either. Parks officials have noted a large migration of beavers away from dry areas and into riverfront parkland in Edmonton.

Some dry areas have sponged up a few inches of rain since municipalities first started declaring states of emergency two weeks ago, but Environment Canada's Drought Watch map still shows a red stain of extreme aridity covering Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and stretching east towards Rosetown and Swift Current.

None of this bodes well for Mr. Becker and other farmers searching the western horizon for rain clouds.

"I've got 100 head of cattle and absolutely nothing to feed them," he said. "They're out in a government pasture and what they're living off I can't tell you. For sure they're losing weight. I haven't seen mine lately and I'm not really looking forward to driving out there and taking a look."

Insurance will take care of expenses Mr. Becker put into this year's failed crop, but not the big loan payments so many farmers have. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz assured farmers that the federal government - heavily criticized for late, insufficient support during the 2001 drought - would be there to soften the blow with a new suite of agricultural assistance programs.

"These programs are as farmer-friendly as we can make them and we continue to tweak them," he said from Canada Day festivities in Lloydminster, Alta. "As a former farmer, looking up at the sky waiting for it to rain is always a gut-wrenching experience."

One of those tweaks allows drought-affected farmers to qualify for immediate cash advances.

"We want to keep them liquid and keep that cash flowing," said Mr. Ritz.

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