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Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, forecasts a rough year for farmers and ranchers. (Nathan Rochford For The Globe and Mail)
Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, forecasts a rough year for farmers and ranchers. (Nathan Rochford For The Globe and Mail)

Crop expert Norm Hall on how drought is hurting Prairie farmers Add to ...

Drought conditions are spreading through Alberta and across Saskatchewan, making for one of the driest seasons on record in some areas. Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, forecasts a rough year for farmers and ranchers grappling with a changing climate.

What sort of conditions are your members seeing today?

For the most part, the province is dry. Highway 2 runs from Prince Albert to Moose Jaw. You get west of that and that’s the drier area. They didn’t have a lot of ground moisture to go into spring with and then they haven’t had much of any rain since the snow melt. You get east of that line, there was more subsurface moisture and there’s been a few more, but still spotty, showers since the snow melt. So just comparing the crops on both sides, west is in trouble for the most part and withering away; the east side is hanging on, but in a lot of cases needs some rain, soon. Because the crops are at the stage where they need that moisture now.

How dry is it?

We’ve heard of areas where it’s drier than the ’30s. We’ve had stories of drier than ’61, which was one of the driest times. But we’re also seeing folks like Dr. John Pomeroy from the University of Saskatchewan, [Canada Research Chair in Water in Water Resources and Climate Change], saying, yes, it is very dry, but a lot of droughts are generally somewhat localized. He’s said this one runs from Mexico to Alaska. That’s the big thing. It’s such a large area.

What’s driving the conditions?

I guess you can look at it as climate change, and climate change meaning, in this case, over the last five to 10 years, more severe weather. It’s not necessarily getting warmer, or colder, or drier or wetter, but just more severe of one or the other. You look at the last five years especially across a lot of Saskatchewan, and we had a lot of severe rain events.

This year, we’ve got a severe dry event. Who knows, maybe this fall or next spring we go back to the rain events again. It’s just there’s going to be more and more of these major events as opposed to lots of little ones, a two-day shower that brings an inch or an inch-and-a-half of rain. Instead, we get a half-day event that brings in six inches of rain.

How are farmers coping?

For grain farmers, there is crop insurance. But cattlemen do not have that kind of insurance.

They’re going to have to buy feed. And from all reports I’ve heard, feed is going at an extreme premium. I used to be happy when I was selling hay bales at $40 apiece. That was really good money. Recent reports that I’ve heard are as high as $200 a bale. And unfortunately, I’m not in the hay-selling business any more.

Once the drought is upon us like this, there’s not a whole bunch we can do. We’re not tilling the ground, so it’s staying there, sealed up. It’s not blowing. We’re not tilling our stubbles in the fall, which opens them up to winter blowing. So they’re collecting the snow, and hopefully there is some snow and it melts in and provides some moisture for seeding.

That’s about as much as we can do. For cattlemen and range land and so on, all they can do is practice what they’ve been doing for the last 150 years on the Prairies, and that’s conservation grazing: You don’t graze it right down to the dirt because that will hurt your grass production for the following year.

How will the drought affect consumers?

The local grain markets, the local feed markets, those prices could be going up. But you start looking at the world market, Canada is 3 per cent of world [wheat] production. So that doesn’t affect the world supply that much. On certain grains it will, such as mustard. We are 80 per cent of the world production. Yellow peas, we’re up the 50-60 per cent of world production. Those we will affect consumers.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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