The Worst Drought in Decades

It has been two months since I posted “One Storm Can Change Everything“. That was the last – and only – significant rain event we have seen this year.

Making things worse was the incessant, unrelenting heat, burning up what little water we had. Want to know the best way to tell that farmers have a tough crop this year? Great beach weather! All those hot, dry days in July and August, while great for going to the lake, make for terrible growing conditions.

Make no mistake: I’m in an area that has at least received at least some moisture this year. We have gotten 88 mm (3.5 inches) of rain so far this year. While this is extremely low – less that 40% of our average rainfall to date – many farms further south and west of ours have seen even less (some have seen much less). So I’m not going to complain and say we are worse off than anybody else, as that is simply not the case. We are fortunate to have the crop that we do.

I think it’s important to understand the situation for farmers out there this year. Nothing anybody did caused this drought to happen, and we farmers do the best we can to utilize every drop of rain we can get in years like this. There’s just very little you can do if it doesn’t rain.

We can give our crops the best chance, with the best genetics, the best crop protection products, and get every job done right and on time. But if the rains don’t come; if the weeks slip by without a drop of moisture, with unceasing heat sucking water out of the crop like a sponge; the crop will fail. Sometimes the weather outweighs everything else.

Adding insult to injury is that sometimes droughts aren’t recognized as a problem by the markets. A world awash in wheat and soybeans doesn’t care about some poor crops in Western Canada. Grain buyers don’t care that we need $13 per bushel canola prices to break even. If the market determines the price should be $10.50 per bushel, that’s just the way it is.

A drought like this one hasn’t been seen on the Prairies in quite a long time. Comparisons are being made to 1988 in many areas, one of the worst droughts in recorded history in the Prairies. It is because of the changes in production techniques that we even have a crop at all. No-till (means the ground is rarely, if ever, worked) is a big part of the reason we have the crop that we do, and no-till only works if we have access to the best crop protection products. Genetically modified crops like canola allow for the minimization of tillage by allowing the use of broad-spectrum herbicides like glyphosate or others. We need every tool in the toolkit when conditions become challenging.

In times like this, we don’t ask for your sympathy, nor do we ask for hand-outs. We ask only for your understanding; that maybe it’s okay it rained on the weekend, possibly derailing lake plans. We ask that maybe you give us a little more room to complain about the weather. We ask for a bit of extra patience in dealing with us, with the extra stress that so many farmers are struggling with right now. The Farm Stress Line is very busy right now. Stress is very real in times like this, and don’t be afraid to ask how your farm friends are doing.

Farming is a complicated and stressful business, and droughts like this one certainly add to the burden. Farming is a long-term, generational business, with next year always at the forefront of our minds. I already worry for 2018; with severely depleted soil moisture, we will desperately need a recharge for the next crop year. If we don’t get it, we may remember 2017 as the deep breath before the plunge.

For now though, my main focus is on harvest. As the combines roll along, we are seeing decent yields coming off the fields. The winter wheat and peas are in the bin, and we should be back at harvest in a couple of days. Lentils are next, and canola and durum will soon follow. Given the limited moisture, I am satisfied with the yields we’re seeing.

There is a lot to be positive about. Just because soil moisture is low now doesn’t mean next year will be a drought too. There have been many flash-in-the-pan droughts (see Midwest USA drought in 2012), and there will be many more. Agriculture is an amazing way of life, and the silver lining of a slower year like this one is more time to spend with my wife and son – and the new little one joining our family in January.

 

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Why I Write

Why does anybody write? Is it some compulsion to make oneself heard? To leave something behind? We all want the world to remember us when we leave it. A page, a book, even a blog, is something that stays around forever (well, as long as humans are around and we don’t forget how to read, that is). But is that really the entire reason? Are we really so melodramatic that all we care about is for some random person to read our written words years after we are dead and forgotten?

I don’t think that’s true. Or, at least, not the entire truth. My reason for starting this blog probably includes those things, sure. I think anyone who has written anything would be lying not to believe that at some level, there is a conceitedness to putting words to a page that describe your life, or parts of it. But the point here is the main reason I write at all. I don’t have any illusions about how many people may read what I have written in my fledgling blog, A Year in the Life of a Farmer. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur here.

I started this blog because nobody really knows what the life of a farmer is really like. Unless you’ve lived it, and I mean really lived it, you don’t know who the people are that produce your food. Everybody wants to know where their food comes from. Everybody wants to know if it’s GMO, or laden with pesticides, or what its carbon footprint might be. But these are all just numbers and words. If you really want to know how your food is produced, you need to know the person producing it.

I am a farmer. I live out on a farm with my wife and our dog, and our yard sprawls over many acres of trees and grass and, well, slough bottom. Our trees are kind of ugly, with deadfall and cursed caraganas sprawling through the uneven rows that complement the newly-seeded grass that has yet to even cover the ground enough to keep weeds down. Hard to believe I can grow crops but I can’t make our stubborn grass grow. Anyway, whatever our yard is, it is our own, as is the land around it. This is the life we have chosen to live. This is the life we will raise children in. This is the life I am so happy to live everyday.

We farm with my older sister and my mom and dad. We are a family farm. Sure, there is the complex and sometimes frustrating structure of partnerships and corporations, and yes, you could call us a corporate farm. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is our family who run it.

This is a blog about a farmer. This is a blog about a family farm. But beyond that, this blog is really about the day to day life of farming; the joys and the frustrations, the despair and the hope, and the trials and tribulations that encompass what we do. I am not afraid to tell you we grow GMO crops. In fact, I am proud to say that we do. We use pesticides, where they are needed and at the rate required for the job. We take care of our land, whether owned or rented, and try to grow the crops that will sustain our farm for the long run, environmentally and economically. If you have a problem with this, buy organic. I make no apologies for what we do to feed a growing world.

If you want to get to know the person behind the food you eat, if you want to understand what it takes to produce the wheat in your bread, or the barley in your beer, or the canola in your cooking oil, read this blog. You may find what you were looking for all along; someone growing your food that genuinely cares about the future of this planet, and its people. My name is Jake Leguee, and I am a farmer and an agvocate. Thanks for reading.

Could’ve Been Worse

The rain event we needed came on Monday. The rain event we needed to avoid came on Thursday.

Yes, the rain that was forecast reared its ugly head early Thursday afternoon. Accumulation expectations varied, but most seemed to be in that 2-3 inch range, with more expected for Monday. Indeed, the outlook was nothing short of grim, with soil that was already saturated incapable of supporting another deluge of rain, thoughts quickly turned to the horrible poundings of rain that slammed us in 2011. Rains that washed out roads, flooded basements, and all but wiped out whatever crops that were in the fields.

The reality was surprisingly positive. Before the rain occurred yesterday, the rains forecast for Monday/Tuesday were backed off to just a chance of showers, which was a big relief. And, now that all is said and done and the rain is finished today, we ended up with a grand total of “only” 1.2 inches of rain. Hardly the amount feared, but still not an insignificant number. Certainly, it was enough to flood out some crops, make the roads wet and sloppy, and will generally make future seeding difficult, but it was not the downpour that was feared. Furthermore, after the rain ended this morning, the sun came out and the wind picked up (a lot), quickly moving water off of many spots in the fields. Things are not as bad as was feared, and it appears that, with the present forecast, we may be back in the fields early in the week. With the calendar flipping to June tomorrow, this is an excellent development, as we may yet be able to finish seeding before the tenth of June.

In a side note, the psychological aspect of farming in this area of the world has been fundamentally altered. For decades, the greatest fear was not getting the rains when they are most needed. Memories of the 1980’s are still fresh in many farmers’ minds, including my father’s. However, we have been in a wet cycle for many years now, in which rain falls in inches rather than tenths of an inch, and farmers now worry about excess moisture rather than missing it. At least, we younger ones do, the ones that didn’t farm in the 80’s. For those that did, drought is an ever-present fear, one that I believe haunts them to their very core. They say that the 80’s were likely worse than the Dirty 30’s; the dust bowl that decimated the prairie landscape, that still leaves scars today in the topsoil piled up in old fencelines. Better farming practices, including conservation tillage made possible by pesticides, were all that held off the horrid dust storms that plagued my grandparents’ homes. My father’s father experienced this firsthand, including the hunger that went with it; they spent many days waiting for the trains to bring food relief. In fact, as my father tells me, my grandfather never even owned shoes, instead saving all the money they could to purchase winter boots. I cannot imagine a time like this; nor do I believe can anyone else in this part of the world.

In reflection of such a terrible time in this province’s history, perhaps our wet cycle isn’t so bad. Cattle aren’t starving to death, we are still getting by, and our homes aren’t caked with dirt. Excess rainfall is frustrating, expensive and difficult, but at least we aren’t choking on dust.

One positive development out of this rain was that I was able to take my wife out to the city for dinner and a movie for her 25th birthday. Since her birthday is in May, it often gets missed out on, which is unfortunate and unfair. She keeps me sane, protecting me from the stress and frustration farming often brings, even if she doesn’t realize it. I am so lucky to have her as my wife.

Being stopped for a couple of days has given us time to evaluate our marketing position as well, which caused us to make new-crop sales of canola and durum to ensure we can make our cash-flow commitments in the fall. Growing the crop is only part of running a business like this. Marketing and finance are vital aspects of the operation that too often get overlooked. This is something I am working on improving, which has led to a massive set of Excel spreadsheets to track every cost and income on this farm. Knowing our cost of production down to the penny has been a huge benefit to us, and we can still do better.

Now that the feared weather event has passed by, we can focus on getting back in the field and finishing seeding. It is time for it to be wrapping up, and I look forward to getting back out there. Maybe Monday will be a go. We will see.