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Drought follows spring deluge for Manitoba farmers

It was only this spring that Manitoba was confronted with one of the worst deluges in provincial history. A record one-third of cropland was too flooded to plant.

Now, in a remarkable reversal, some of the crops that were seeded are wilting because parts of the province have gone two months with almost no rain. Even as hurricane rains lashed the east coast, the centre reaches of Canada are struggling against a drought, reflecting conditions in places such as Texas, which is having a dry spell so bad it's earned comparisons to the 1930s Dust Bowl.

The situation is jarring for Manitoba farmers, who are suffering from weather whiplash since their waterlogged spring.

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"I could be receiving flood and drought insurance payments at the same time. That's crazy," said Doug Chorney, who farms just under 1,500 acres of wheat, oats and canola about 35 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. "You would never believe it to be possible."

Mr. Chorney's farm is usually wet. He has outfitted one of his combines with four-wheel drive and tires capable of slogging through two-thirds of a metre of water and muck.

This year, his neighbours are watering around the basements of their houses. The ground there is heavy with clay, and has grown so dry that it is contracting, which could damage foundations. The crevices in the parched fields have grown increasingly wide.

"You could drop a big crescent wrench and the entire wrench would go into the ground," Mr. Chorney said. "That's how big the cracks are."

In Winnipeg, July was the driest month since record-keeping began in 1872; only twice before – including in 1929 – have June, July and August been drier. Only one of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives' 53 weather stations has seen normal precipitation since July; several have received only 15 per cent of normal.

Even the most rain-soaked areas are now dry. The town of Souris, 85 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border, had 281 per cent of normal rainfall in May and June. Since then, it's been 39 per cent of normal. When rain does fall, it often comes in brief thundershowers followed by a sweep of dry air. The result: the moisture is quickly sucked back into the sky.

"It doesn't get a chance to penetrate the ground," said Mike Wroblewski, agriculture weather specialist with the province. He described the ground conditions in some parts of the province as "cracks and chaos."

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What many find most extraordinary is how rapidly conditions have swung. This spring, with the Red and Assiniboine Rivers spilling their banks, vast tracts of farmland were inundated. Some 2.9-million acres went unseeded, double the previous record. Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC), which handles the province's crop insurance, paid out more than $160-million. Ottawa joined with Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to commit a further $448-million to help out farmers, paying $30 for each acre too wet to seed. That was on top of the $50 to $65 an acre, minus deductions, that insured farmers in Manitoba received.

Now, however, Manitoba also could see payouts for crops damaged by the heat. The MASC has sufficient reserves to cover any such claims – although Neil Thomas, the corporation's president, said "we're not really sure yet to the extent that will be an issue."

"I know yields are going to be down. But I wouldn't, at this point, say we're going to have just a deluge of post-harvest claims," he said.

Farmers in some parts of the province have seen healthy crops. Overall, though, the numbers point to a difficult year. While Statistics Canada expects the Prairies to post record canola production this year on top of rising wheat output, Manitoba is the outlier. Its wheat crop is expected to fall 30.3 per cent from 2010, while canola is forecast to tumble 21.7 per cent.

And the crops that did make it into ground have suffered. In the east, soya beans are turning brown weeks early, their growth stunted by the heat. And farther west, the combination of wet and dry has taken a toll.

Rob Pettinger farms about 2,000 acres near Elgin, 275 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. His land was so badly flooded that he was able to plant just 130 acres of hard red spring wheat. It did not flourish.

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"We harvested at 15 bushels an acre. It should be 50," Mr. Pettinger said. "Because it was seeded when it was so wet, the crops suffered early on. And then when it turned dry, it ran out of moisture."

The only upside: the warm, sunny summer has been a recreational boon. In the midst of another hot dry weekend, Mr. Pettinger and his wife decided to take a break.

"I think maybe we will head to the beach today," he said.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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