Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rainmakers needed as the drought continues to haunt farmers in Alberta.

The Province of Alberta has many rural regions, some of which are experiencing major droughts annually. Back in 2002, the Alberta Government announced $324 million in aid to help desperate farmers and ranchers survive the three-year drought they had already suffered.

"I can't make it rain. If I could, I can assure you it would have rained some time ago," the Agriculture Minister at the time, Shirley McClellan said.

It's clear, she said, the existing farm insurance packages are not enough as farmers face drought and now an unprecedented invasion of grasshoppers.

"We're estimating that a good 70 per cent to 75 per cent of our province is in a record dry state.

"Over half of our municipalities have declared drought disaster areas or are on drought alert."

The money will be available in per-acre payments. McClellan said 85 per cent will be handed over immediately. The rest is to be paid out as soon as applications have been checked. Many wells in Alberta are drying up. Now, people often have to drill twice as far as usual to hit water.

The drought is forcing many ranchers to sell off their cows because they can't afford to feed them.

"It's emotionally very draining. Every day, we're talking to people who are selling their livelihoods. They're selling their future," Will Irvine told CBC Newsworld. Irvine runs a cattle auction in Calgary.

"They don't know what tomorrow brings. Do they get a job? What do they do?"

Irvine described the ranchers as proud people who don't usually ask for government aid, but he said now they've been brought to their knees. They're desperate.

"Some of these people bring their cattle to town ... They're getting the same kind of money today that they would have received last fall, except they've put $170 or $180 a tonne of hay into their cows. They've got no money left, they've got no grass, they've got no choice."

Even if conditions return to normal, it will take at least two to three years to even begin restocking herds, McLellan said.

Crops are dry, grasshoppers are eating what's left. Farmers were no better off then or now. Their crops are dry, and grasshoppers are eating what did manage to grow.

"If, when I left agriculture school, you had told me 35 years later I'd have a crop like this, I would have said, 'you're dreaming, you're pulling my leg,'" said Ken Arnold, a farmer in Rockyford, Alta.

"All the time I farmed with my dad and all the time I farmed on my own, I've never ever seen a crop like this. And I've never seen it gone by the end of June. I've never seen a crop toast."

Arnold said the $324 million will mostly go toward paying off retailers for farm machinery or fertilizer. And he worries about the future of farming.

"My worry is that there's no young farmers in agriculture and there's no encouragement for them to stay there ... I think we can't go on in this ad hoc basis where the government comes in every four or five years and says, 'here's some money, go away and don't bother us any more.'

Well here we are 5 years later in 2007 with a farmer as Premier and guess what? We have not made a dent in the drought situation nor are we encouraging farmers to find climate change solutions for the Prairies.

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