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Soil moisture levels in central Alberta at 50-year low

WATCH ABOVE: It’s been 50 years since parts of central Alberta have been as dry as they are right now. Margeaux Morin speaks to farmers about the issue.

EDMONTON — Between early frost events, record warm spells and the lack of rain, this growing season hasn’t been kind to farmers in central Alberta.

Chris Allam and his family have been farming just east of Edmonton for generations. The last time he saw conditions this dry was back in 2002 – and that was a dire situation.

“If we don’t get some sort of substantial moisture in the next little bit, it’s going to make things pretty difficult,” he said, as he and his brother Cameron surveyed an area of damaged canola crops.

The weeks from June 15 to July 15 are important for farmers. Historically, a large amount of the early summer rainfall needed to have healthy yields occurs during that time.

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Given that parts of central Alberta are experiencing soil moisture levels at their lowest in 50 years, rain over the next few weeks is crucial.

“We need a good half inch to an inch soaker to get through this,” Allam said. “The small showers will help a little bit, but we need substantial rainfall.”

Ralph Wright, a soil moisture expert with Alberta Agriculture, agrees.

“The one in 50-year dry spell stems from the beginning of the growing season which is April 1. So we’ve had about 70 days of quite unusually dry spring conditions.”

“We’d like to see 20 to 40 millimetres come at a time, as well as interspersed with some warmer and drier conditions to get the crops going and keep the diseases down”

The areas most hard hit extend both northeast and southeast of Edmonton.

Communities covered in red are experiencing once in 50-year low soil moisture levels. The pink areas indicate once in 12 to once in 25-year events.

This map shows the Spring Wheat Soil Moisture Reserves relative to long term normal amounts. Parts of central Alberta are currently experiencing once in fifty year lows. Photo credit: Alberta Agriculture.

With record low rainfall and heat causing soil moisture to evaporate faster than it’s replenished, all signs are pointing to an agricultural drought.

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Wright thinks that, while the rain may not reverse the average to below-average crop yield outlook, it could stop those projections from getting any worse.

“We are coming into the wettest time of the year right now and agriculture around here is rain fed, so we rely on rainfall and it needs to be coming in with good-timed amounts.”

“We can’t afford to have two or three millimetres here and there. We want to see 10 millimetres at a time, even 25 or 40.”

Wright and Allam won’t be the only Albertans keeping a close eye on the forecast and rooting for the rain.

“It’s a tough industry, it’s a tough job,” said Allam. “We enjoy it, but Mother Nature controls everything that we do, so it makes things frustrating at times.”

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