Fungicide season is over (mostly), insect populations seem to be on the decline, and our seeding equipment is cleaned up and put away. Our harvesting equipment is mostly ready to go to the field, and there aren’t too many summer projects to work on. Crops look nothing short of excellent, as stated in the last post, and our farm and many others have a great opportunity for profit this year. Finally, after a long, hard run this spring and summer, we can sit back and relax a bit.
Or can we?
Last night was a dark reminder of the climate we live in. Temperatures dropped dangerously close to the freezing mark, with some lows dipping down to between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. We have been in a cool weather pattern for the past few days, and yesterday was the coldest, with temperatures improving going forward. Nonetheless, a night like that sends a chill down a farmer’s spine, with reminders of the year 2004 still fresh in everybody’s minds.
The growing season of 2004 was, by all accounts, a great one. Crops were fantastic across the prairies, with huge potential. I remember my dad, I think it was in June, saying “We are set up to have our biggest crop ever.” Summer, however, was quite cool, with many nights dipping into the low single digits and daily highs only in the low twenties. This is great weather for growing canola; the flowering plants hate weather warmer than 28 degrees Celsius, and do very well in low twenties. Wheat and peas enjoy similar weather.
Things were looking phenomenal- until the night of August 19th. Temperatures dropped below zero, and did again only a couple of days later. Frost that early causes some serious issues for immature crops. Temperatures below zero are alright if only for a limited time; but that year it was about -2 to -4 for 2-3 hours. This kind of cold essentially kills a plant as it stands. Immature seeds contained in pods and in heads lose ability to mature, and end up staying green. Some seeds may finish their filling, but will be shrunken and light. These characteristics are worse in some crops than others. In wheat, the flour made from these seeds will not rise properly to form bread, and must therefore be sold as animal feed. Canola will not develop its oil content required for crushing to produce cooking oil and biofuel. Malt barley will not germinate properly in the process to create beer. In other crops like lentils, where appearance is everything, grading can be harsh.
Crops are graded in Canada as a #1 on down to feed. Major price discounts are common for a grade reduction from a #1, particularly in wheat, durum and malt barley. A drop from a #1 to a #2 or even a #3 may not be too bad, especially if there is a lot of #1 wheat around. A drop to feed could cost $2-4 per bushel, depending on the year. In 2004, since most of the Prairies was hit by this frost, most wheat was feed, so the price was pitifully low. Even back then, selling wheat for $2/bushel does not pencil out well.
Many farmers that year nearly went bankrupt, with the only saving grace being a good crop the following year. Even though that was only nine years ago, the numbers have grown larger, and I know our farm would be devastated by a frost that early this year. We are still a month away from harvest, and we must avoid a frost until at least the middle of September. Because of the late seeding this year, our crops are behind normal, and we need a later frost and a nice fall.
Farming is a difficult business, mostly because of the catastrophic effects Mother Nature can have on our crops. Drought, excess moisture, hail, wind, insects, disease, weeds and frost are all things that a crop must overcome, sometimes all in the same year. We have reached the end of hail season, but now we must worry about heavy rainfall and frost. Harvest looms in front of us, but the fact is that it is still a long way away- too far away. Just as my stress level started to decrease from severe weather, it rises again now from the possibility of an early frost.
Time will tell. All we can do is wait- and pray.