Numbers made available by Statistics Canada show that 2018 was a brutal year for Calgary farmers, with environmental and political problems coming together to create problems for the industry.
Crystal Schick / Postmedia
Alberta farm incomes plummeted in 2018 due to a “brutal” combination of conditions that included severe drought, wild weather, and global trade barriers.According to data released by Statistics Canada this week, realized net income of farmers in the province fell by 68 per cent to just $535 million in 2018 — the largest percentage decrease since 2006. While farm incomes dropped in every province except New Brunswick last year, more than one-third of the 45 per cent decline nation-wide was attributable to what happened in Alberta. In this province, a wet early spring gave way to an extended hot and dry spell that withered crops in the field and was followed by an unseasonably early dump of rain and snow.“It was an absolutely brutal year,” said Matt Sawyer, who farms grain and oilseeds northeast of Calgary near Acme, Alberta. “It was a real struggle all year long.”Sawyer said his own farm received less than 25 per cent of its normal rainfall in July and August, taking a bite out of production numbers. Then the September snowfall delayed harvest for weeks and impacted crop quality.In addition, the smoke from B.C. forest fires that blanketed much of Alberta last summer had a negative effect on some crops, blocking the direct sunlight they need to mature.“The canola just didn’t ripen,” Sawyer said. “There are many, many farmers who have never experienced having such poor quality canola.”Beef producers were also affected by the drought conditions last year. Some ran out of grass on their pasture land and had to purchase feed at a 20 to 25 per cent premium to get their cow herds through the winter.“The south and east side of the province was very bad,” said Alberta Beef Producers chair Charlie Christie, who operates a mixed farm near Trochu. “People had to liquidate some cows, and they had to do so at a deflated price, because other people didn’t have the feed to snap these cows up.”According to Statistics Canada, farm operating expenses increased 6.5 per cent nationally in 2018 to $50.6 billion, the largest percentage increase since 2012 and driven largely by feed costs as well as rising fuel, interest, and other input costs.Livestock revenues edged down 0.2 per cent to $25 billion in 2018, while crop revenues nationally went up 0.9 per cent to $35 billion. That increase was driven largely by healthy wheat prices as well as new revenue from licensed cannabis producers. However, some other commodities saw significant decreases in revenue. Canola receipts fell 6.5 per cent (and 16.1 per cent in Alberta) while lentil revenues were down 35 per cent, due in large part to new tariffs applied by the government of India in late 2017 that have had the effect of sharply lowering prices. Prices for dry peas, another commodity affected by the Indian tariffs, fell 17 per cent in 2018 while revenues fell almost 20 per cent.Canada is also facing market access issues with Italy, which has enacted country-of-origin labelling legislation sharply reducing Canadian exports of durum wheat, and with Saudi Arabia, which stopped buying Canadian wheat and barley after Canada expressed concerns about human rights abuses in that country.By far the biggest market access concern right now is China’s decision to block canola shipments from Canada in the wake of an ongoing diplomatic dispute between the two countries. That problem arose in the early part of 2019 and is not reflected in the most recent Statistics Canada data, but is a major concern going forward as China is Canada’s largest buyer of canola.“There’s lots of canola in the bins that hasn’t been sold and of course, that’s being devalued. The price of canola is going backwards because of these market access issues,” said Dave Bishop, who farms near Barrons in southern Alberta.
A canola field in Alberta.
Mike Drew /
Bishop, who also serves as chair of Alberta Barley, said while it is a worrisome time to be a farmer, he is hopeful this year may be better than last. His farm, which was very dry heading into spring seeding, has since received some timely rainfall and growing conditions look to be improving.“At the moment, we’re feeling better about the potential of having a decent crop, but a lot could still happen,” Bishop said. “Farming in the last few years has been pretty tough, in general, in Alberta. It’s not for the faint of heart.”email@example.comOn Twitter: @AmandaMsteph