A Year When Everything Is Going Right for Western Canada’s Farmers

Driving around Saskatchewan earlier this month, I found it impossible to miss the harvest activity. Tractors were kicking up clouds of dust in the fields, grain trucks were rolling down the highways, and I occasionally had to pull off onto the shoulder to avoid large pieces of farm equipment.

Forecasters anticipate near-record harvests for wheat and other crops from Canadian farmers this year. It is a remarkable reversal from 2021, the season of scorching temperatures and parching drought that devastated farms throughout Western Canada. Last August, my colleague Vjosa Isai and Brett Gundlock, a photographer on assignment for The Times, reported that a lack of feed had left ranchers in Manitoba contemplating selling some or all of the livestock that their families had bred over generations.

[Read from 2021: Farmers Race to Save Their Cattle From Canada’s Drought]

Statistics Canada is projecting that the harvests of wheat, canola, barley, oats, soybeans and corn will all be up this year, many of them by double-digit percentages, because of milder weather. The wheat crop, a mainstay of Canada’s farm exports, is expected to increase by 55.6 percent from last year, to 34.7 million metric tons. If that forecast proves correct, it will be one of the top three harvests on record going back to 1908.

For farmers, the joy of bountiful harvests can be offset by lower prices from a flooded market. But Richard Gray, the Canadian grain policy research chair at the University of Saskatchewan, told me that this year, “prices are certainly above average, very good.”

Behind those prices, of course, is the disruption to Ukrainian agriculture caused by Russia’s invasion. The war has also increased the cost of items like fuel, pesticides and fertilizer for farmers here in Canada. But Professor Gray said that, while those extra costs may be unwelcome, they will be more than offset by the high prices farmers will receive for their crops.

“We’re not in any kind of a cost price squeeze at all,” he said.

The impact of increased exports will be felt globally, as it helps remedy shortfalls caused by the war. The mustard industry in France, which depends overwhelmingly on imports of seeds from Western Canada to make Dijon, will also see an end to lingering shortages. Mustard seed production in Canada is expected to rise by a staggering 192 percent over 2021.

Yet, when it comes to farming in Canada, there are perennial questions about the ability of railways and ports to actually get the harvest to overseas customers.

“They don’t have a great track record,” Professor Gray said of the railways and ports.

But recent investments by grain companies at the port in Vancouver and by railways in new hopper cars and more powerful locomotives that can pull longer trains, he said, have eliminated many bottlenecks in the system. Grain that’s headed to Europe to replace imports from Ukraine, he added, is generally coming from farms in Eastern Canada, where the grain-handling systems have long been running below capacity.

The only potential trouble spot remains, as always, the climate. Floods last year in British Columbia cut off roads and rail lines to Vancouver. And unusually cold winters could also stop trains.

But, barring that, Professor Gray said, 2022 should finish as a rare year when things have gone well for most farmers in Western Canada.

“You won’t very often get the farm community to say the same thing,” he said. “But it occasionally happens that they all stop whining.”

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/24/world/canada/a-year-when-everything-is-going-right-for-western-canadas-farmers.html