Saskatchewan farmers look to the future after months of drought

Many Saskatchewan farmers are facing the daunting prospect of planning for 2022 with soil moisture reserves depleted and a business threatened by a dire drought. File / Global News

When farmer Cortney Solonenko looks over his drought-stricken land near Yorkton, Sask., he sees a tank running on empty.

This year may be the worst one since he and his brother took over what’s now a roughly 15,000-acre farm from their father in 2013.

They’ve grown roughly 41 bushels of winter wheat per acre so far, which is about half of normal.

Saskatchewan’s agriculture has always relied on the land’s moisture retention, “but when the tank’s empty, the tank’s empty,” said Solonenko, who farms near Stornoway.

Solonenko is one of the many Saskatchewan farmers who are facing the daunting prospect of planning for 2022 with soil moisture reserves depleted and a business threatened by a dire drought.

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Thursday’s crop report painted a difficult picture: cropland topsoil moisture is rated as four per cent adequate, 29 per cent short and 67 per cent very short. Hay and pasture land topsoil moisture came in as two per cent adequate, 21 per cent short and 77 per cent very short.

Recent small showers did little to reverse the low moisture levels, the report said.

With moisture at a premium, University of Saskatchewan hydrologist Phillip Harder is advising producers to keep their crop stubble high this fall so their land retains more from any upcoming snowfall.

There would need to be roughly 200 millimetres of precipitation this fall for the soil to meet its needs, which is very unlikely. Leaving a summer field fallow or crop stubble higher may help, but it’s not a silver bullet for 2022, he said.

“If it’s anything remotely dry again, we’re going to be having these same conversations, and it’s still going to be really painful on the farming community.”

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Wes Anderson, vice-president of agronomy with Croptimistic Technology, says farmers are going to have to enter 2022 with “a different mindset.”

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An exceptional year calls for exceptional management, he said.

Anderson advises against falling into old patterns like fall tillage, which may ultimately be little more than “recreational” in these conditions. That said, a few tried-and-true methods may be worth considering.

Leaving stubble high is one option.

While many have already done so, he’s also suggesting adopting zero tillage. Other options include managing residual nutrients, testing soil and controlling fall weeds to keep every bit of stored water.

“It feels like there’s nothing you can do, but at the end of the day you have to be able to capture any opportunity that does come,” he said. “Maybe that’s only a half-inch of rain, maybe it’s three inches of snow.”

Solonenko plans to make the most of the lack of moisture, planting crops like flax and lentils that need less water. The lentil crop he planted for the first time this year yielded roughly 40 bushels, which he finds encouraging.

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He has also booked about 70 per cent of his fertilizer outputs for next year — which may cushion him somewhat from its rising prices — and has also stayed out of forward grain contracts that other farmers have struggled to fulfil during the drought.

He thinks the next few months will be critical as he waits to see what weather comes with winter and spring.

Higher commodity prices may help growers like him, according to Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan vice-president Ian Boxall.

Producers with less money available for farm inputs are also likely to roll back on fertilizer as prices rise, he said.

“We’re going to see substantially reduced yield and commodity prices that are very, very aggressive,” Boxall said, comparing the market favourably to the droughts of the early 2000s that were further hampered by lower prices.

Boxall says farmers are resilient and should be optimistic for the year ahead. But he wants grain companies that have negotiated forward contracts with struggling farmers to be more flexible.

Governments should also continue to support the industry — especially cattle producers — to avoid the drought dragging down local economies as farmers tighten their budgets, he said.

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“Farmers have a smaller crop than they’re used to, but because of the prices, that turns a really bad year into an ‘OK, we’re not going to lose the farm’ kind of year,” said Adam Pukalo, commodities adviser at PI Financial Corp.

The conversations he’s had with clients have been bullish on grain markets in the short to medium term, although watching those prices climb can be “a jab in the side” for some farmers without grain, he said.

In some cases, he’s advising farmers on how to protect high prices to make the most of the situation headed into 2022.

“Clients always want the highest price, but then that probably means that they don’t have a crop. And then, if they have a great crop, that probably means the price is lower,” he said.

Paige Stewart, a farmer near Fillmore, has been more fortunate. Her farm has received some rain and she has a crop. However, some lessons learned from a challenging year in 2019 may matter for farmers planning for 2022.

Investing in private revenue insurance, in addition to government farm insurance programs like AgriStability, may offer some needed protection during hard years, she said.

It can be hard to swallow, and may “take the cream off the top” in good years, but it also takes the edge off of the harder ones.

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Relationships also factor in. Stewart said having a network of other farmers — especially those who lived through the droughts of the 1980s — could be a huge untapped resource for some who are looking for outside support.

She found that personally when her operation was facing challenges in 2019, she said. At the time, she and her husband took up coaching basketball to focus on something other than farming. It was a welcome break.

Headed into next year, she agrees with Boxall that governments should be backing up producers and livestock owners who’ve been particularly hard hit.

In her eyes, fully reimbursable counselling services, combined with support from relationships, can help people through a tough time.

“Farmers aren’t going to pick up the phone. They need someone to come and sit with them in the combine, and talk to them on their turf, when they need help,” she said.

Solonenko also advises finding a silver lining. Rising prices are a small reassurance that farmers can overcome a challenging year as they head into a new one.

Those small upsides and pockets of resilience will be a valuable resource as farmers begin sewing their hopes for 2022 after the drought.

“When agriculture struggles, everyone struggles,” Solonenko said. “It’s tough for us and we’ll get through it.”

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