This Globe series follows a bushel of hard red spring wheat grown in Alberta from planting until it is turned into bread by a foreign buyer.
Not enough rain. Too much rain. A plunge in wheat prices. And then eight inches of snow.
For farmer Jay Schultz, this season has been one to forget. The surprise snowstorms that hit the central part of Alberta for four days last week flattened his fields of waist-high wheat. The crop he had hoped would fetch high prices as top-grade milling wheat bought by global bread makers is worth much less, and could be destined for cattle feedlots and pig farms.
Mr. Schultz said his 6,000-acre farm east of Calgary faces a revenue drop of at least 30 per cent, and that as much as 20 per cent of his crop is lost.
"It's a pretty big disaster," he said in an interview. "The snow started Sunday morning, and then went Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, off and on. It would melt some, then snow again."
The wheat, which has been snapped at ground level, lies wet in the fields where it is prone to fungi and diseases that will reduce its grade. Feed wheat is worth about $1.50 less a bushel than the Grade 1 wheat Mr. Schultz normally grows.
But even before the snow, Mr. Schultz was facing a tough year.
Wheat prices have fallen 15 per cent in the past 12 months after a large U.S. harvest. And feed wheat competes with corn, which has become cheaper this year after a big crop. Prices for canola, another major crop for Mr. Schultz, are down 22 per cent amid a large harvest of rival oilseed soybean in the United States and South America. At his farm near the town of Standard, Mr. Schultz endured a dry, hot summer that slowed his crop's growth, and then heavy rains last month reduced the wheat's bushel weight and quality.
And the grain company that tested his wheat recently graded it No. 2, a disappointment after a few years of high yields and grading.
Mr. Schultz now faces the task of using a swathing machine on his flattened fields in order to line up the plants for the combine's blades, a time-consuming process that drives up labour and fuel costs. He figures he will still be in the fields in mid-October, two weeks longer than usual.
"It's going to be a very tricky harvest," he said. "Everything's going to be that much slower and harder to do."
The Globe and Mail is following a bushel of Mr. Schultz's hard red spring wheat from planting to consumption. Hard red wheat grown in the Prairies is prized by millers around the world for its high protein and the highly elastic dough it produces. But the snow storms could mean the food chain leads to a producer of animal feed that serves the Manitoba hog industry, not a bakery in China.
"Disappointing" is how Harry Brook, a crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, describes the growing season.
"It's a combination of poor crops, poor quality, combined with poor prices," Mr. Brook said. "This year we had some above-average crops, but most of them are still in the fields. So it's kind of like a kick in the gut."
The first part of this week is expected to be sunny and warm, which could dry much of the crop as it lies in the field. This could mean Mr. Schultz's crop will avoid being graded as feed wheat.
"It's not really a done deal yet," Mr. Brook said. "It looks bad, but this is something producers have dealt with in the past."
With feed wheat fetching about $4 a bushel, a farmer with a good crop of 60 bushels an acre will see returns of $240 an acre, far less than the $300 it costs to plant, fertilize and harvest.
Mr. Brook said the farm sector is headed for a period of "retraction." The farmers who have enjoying rising incomes and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on tractors will hunker down and look for ways to cut costs. The money they put away to buy new tractors will be spent on day-to-day operations as profit margins return to a more normal – and paltry – 1 and 2 per cent.
"This is not for the faint of heart," Mr. Brook said.
Mr. Schultz, who farms the land his grandfather first seeded decades ago, is not discouraged. He has finished harvesting peas, and is hauling canola by truck. He expects to finish his canola this week. Then it's back to harvesting wheat and 16-hour days in the tractor.
"It's an awesome life and I love being out here, but every year is different," Mr. Schultz said. "We've had some bumper years the last few years, so I guess we were due for something like this. As farmers always say, there's always next year."