Skip to main content

Curtis Henkelmann with some of his severely drought-damaged wheat on his farm southeast of Calmar, Alta., on July 19, 2015.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

From a distance, the wheat fields on Curtis Henkelmann's farm appear to be thriving. Get a little closer, though, and the real picture comes into focus. When Mr. Henkelmann pulls a dozen stalks from the ground, two are green and should eventually produce grain. The rest are yellow, dry and dead.

Farmers across almost two-thirds of Alberta are coping with some of the driest conditions in decades, and two of the province's counties have declared states of agricultural disaster. Unless a significant amount of rain falls in the coming months, it could take years for the parched soil to recover. In Mr. Henkelmann's home of Leduc County, farmers are experiencing the worst drought in a half-century.

"You still see a field of green, but this is one-third of what we typically get," he said, surveying his farm 45 minutes southwest of Edmonton. He held his hand three-quarters of a metre above heads of wheat that have barely pushed to his knee – that's where the grains should be by this time of year. "It's too late for most of this stuff."

Leduc County is expected to declare a state of agricultural disaster at a special meeting on Tuesday. The county lies in the driest part of Alberta, according to provincial crop-reporting stations. Rainfall was about 25 centimetres at this point in the growing season last year. This year, farmers have only seen about five.

"In areas where you would typically have hip-height, nice grazing forage grasses, it just isn't. It's parched, it's burnt off and it's cooked. With little moisture, nothing is growing," said Garett Broadbent, Leduc County's agricultural director. "Even the rain that falls is just going into the air as moisture. It's crazy dry."

While declaring a state of agricultural disaster doesn't trigger automatic aid programs, Mr. Broadbent says the federal and provincial governments need to step up and offer help to farmers with stunted fields and others who are selling off cattle herds that have nowhere to graze.

"We're not considering any ad hoc programs at this time, but we will review that later in the season," provincial Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier told The Globe and Mail.

The provincial and federal governments currently offer a mix of insurance plans that cover crop damage, pasture and hay insurance, emergency funding and profit-protection programs. "At this point, those programs are adequate," Mr. Carlier said.

The recently elected NDP minister worked for Agriculture Canada for two decades, much of it in irrigation programs. "Droughts are not a new phenomenon. It's something we'll get through. Our producers are a resilient bunch," he said.

Mr. Henkelmann is the third generation of his family to operate their farm off Range Road 262.

The small creek running alongside the farm is dry. More than a decade ago he used the water for cattle, but after a serious drought in 2002 he and many of his neighbours stopped raising livestock. He now grows wheat, barley and canola on his 2,500-acre property.

"We're probably in a worse state than we were in 2002, but there's a lot less livestock. You can count the cattle between here and Edmonton on one hand," Mr. Henkelmann said. "If we had the same cattle levels as 2002, Alberta would be in a world of trouble."

West of Edmonton, Parkland County was the second in Alberta to declare a state of disaster. According to James Leskiw, the county's agricultural supervisor, the decision was made after the first hay production reports were "alarmingly low."

"Guys that were getting 200 bales of hay off a field last year were getting 20 this year," he said.

Along with weeks of sunny, dry weather, farmers across the province are also contending with the voracious grasshoppers that thrive in these conditions.

"Seeing the areas hit by drought, they look exactly how I remember from the 2002 drought. It's really dry, and grasshoppers are devouring anything green," Mr. Leskiw said. "Like weeds, the grasshoppers seem to flourish under harsh conditions. I've got reports of them this year eating weeds, which they won't typically touch."

A winter in which most of central and northern Alberta experienced mild weather with little snowfall is seen as the source of this year's troubles. However, the vice-president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture warns that unless the province gets substantial rain and snow over the next few months, 2016 could be even worse for farmers.

"If we don't see a substantial rebuilding of the deeper moisture layer, next year farmers will be living shower to shower. The effects of this could be long-lasting," Humphrey Banack said.

Editor's Note: The original print version and an earlier digital version of this article mistakenly omitted the name of Humphrey Banack, the vice-president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. This digital version has been corrected.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe