It never rains but it pours. Farmers in the Interlake, especially those around Arborg, Gimli and Riverton, know it’s a sad fact, not just a turn of phrase. For two years in a row, too much rain, compounded by poor drainage, has devastated the region, leaving some producers wondering how they can afford to stay in business and others pondering why they bother.
Cropland too wet and rutted from last year’s excess rainfall to seed this spring still can’t be worked. Some land could go unseeded next spring if the rains don’t stop, resulting in a third consecutive year of lost revenue and mounting expenses.
Many of the acres that did get seeded – usually as a result of some unorthodox technique and herculean effort – have drowned out. And where crops survived, yields and quality make it questionable as to whether it’s worth the cost and stress of getting it off.
“I’ve been to a few farm meetings and there’s such a feeling of helplessness – I guess despair is the word,” Kelvin Einarson, who farms near Riverton, said in an interview last week.
“I only got 40 per cent (of my land) seeded, but I managed to work up most of it. I still have some land I haven’t been able to get on.”
The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s insurance division says 193,000 acres or 38 per cent of the cropland in the Interlake region didn’t get seeded. (That includes the rural municipalities of Armstrong, Bifrost, Coldwell, Eriksdale, Fisher, Gimli, Grahamdale, Rockwood, St. Andrews, St. Laurent, Sigulnes and Woodlands.)
Assuming each acre represents a $100 loss in revenue, farmers are out $20 million on unseeded acreage alone, said David Shott, another local farmer and R. M. of Bifrost councillor.
“A third of the fields at best won’t get seeded next year because we still haven’t got on them,” Shott said. “It’s still too wet.
“Money-wise we’re tapped, we’re done and we’re all worried about getting credit to put a crop in next year. We don’t know what to do.
“There are second-and third-generation farmers who are thinking about pulling the plug because they’ve just had it.”
TOO MUCH RAIN
Between May 1 and Aug. 30 Arborg received 390 mm of rain – 146 per cent of normal. During the same period degree days and crop heat units were 85 and 89 per cent of normal, respectively, according to weather data collected by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI).
Cooler temperatures resulted in less evaporation, effectively
making it wetter, while delaying plant growth. And what did survive is at risk to frost.
Cattle producers are suffering too. Those who could travel on their hayland seldom had enough time between rains to bale before it rained again, forcing many to ensile their hay, Einarson said.
One cattle farmer who normally puts up 3,500 bales had just 1,000 made 10 days ago, Einarson said.
Both Shott and Einarson say the region needs better drainage, while acknowledging there has been so much rain there would still be problems.
“It’s one thing to get a pile of rain but if you can’t get if off the land after, it just compounds matters,” Einarson said.
“A lot of our drains haven’t been cleaned out for maybe 30, 40 years,” Einarson said.
NOT ENOUGH DRAINAGE
Einarson and some other local farmers have asked Bifrost to levy a $3-an-acre tax with the money used exclusively for drainage and matched by the provincial and federal governments two and three to one. It could generate more than $4 million a year for ditch cleaning.
Programs like crop insurance and AgriStability are only band-aids, Einarson said. He believes investing in drainage will help fix the problem.
The reeve of Bifrost, Harold Foster, agrees drainage needs to be improved, but doesn’t think the tax would fly. Last year the municipality set aside one mil of tax revenue – $90,000 – for drainage and is considering spending its provincial gas tax earnings on drainage too.
“Part of the problem is the provincial drains aren’t properly maintained,” he said.
Foster also says Lake Winnipeg is too high. The maximum should be one foot lower at 714 feet above sea level, he said. “At times we have water from Lake Winnipeg backing into our drains.”
Interlake farmers suspect when it comes to provincial assistance for drainage there’s a double standard.
“Why is it when the wind blows in the Red River Valley filling the ditches with topsoil there are 30 or 50 backhoes swinging?” Einarson said, referring to efforts following a duststorm last year. Municipalities were desperate to clear the ditches before any heavy rains knowing the clogged drains would flood and kill crops. The province helped pay for the effort under its emergency measures legislation.
This spring the Manitoba and federal governments announced the Manitoba Forage Restoration and Feed Assistance programs to assist Interlake farmers contend with excess rain last year. Up to $40 per acre is available to help re-establish forage crops, forage seed fields and pastures. Farmers can also get up to $70 a head for breeding herds of cattle and other livestock to offset cost of purchasing feed.
The Manitoba government also put up $3 million through its Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) to help farmers restore flood-damaged cropland.
When asked if similar programs will be available this year, Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk said it was too early to say.
“We can’t make commitments now,” she said in an interview Sept. 2. “It’s not that (MAFRI) staff aren’t reviewing it and working very closely with them (local farmers) and looking at what the challenges might be.”
Farmers will get some money through AgriStability, but reduced farm margins will affect the amounts.
Farmers can get $50 to $65 an acre for unseeded acres through crop insurance. It’s a help, Einarson said, but there’s nothing left after paying rent and spraying Roundup to kill the weeds.
The hot, and especially dry weather, late last week, had boosted Einarson’s spirits as he prepared to combine timothy seed.
“Harvest is supposed to be a happy time when you take in the fruits of your labour,” he said. “Just to get out on the combine and get something puts a little bit of wind back in your sails and provides a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.” [email protected]