Spring is in the air, and as seeding time approaches, Manitoba farmers who have been flooded out for the last two years are looking to the skies for help.
Rob Park, manager of the Crops Industry Focus Section of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, says the province is in "a little bit of a state of crisis right now," having faced serious difficulties with excess moisture in the last two years. "There was close to 1.5 million acres of cropland not seeded last year," he says, "and a big chunk of that was found right in the Red River Valley."
The wide and flat-bottomed Red River Valley in southern Manitoba is notorious for flooding, and its towns and cities (including Winnipeg) have faced disaster again and again.
In 1997, the Red River, which flows north along the border of Minnesota, North Dakota and into Manitoba, swelled to create what is now called The Flood of the Century.
The waters forced evacuation of 28,000 Manitobans and caused $500 million in damage. At the flood's peak in Canada on May 4, 1997, the river submerged more than 2,560 sq. km (990 square miles) of land.
In 2004 and 2005, growers in the valley found themselves again facing swamp-like conditions. With crops too wet for tractors, farmers were desperate, says Park. "The end result was that push came to shove, and crop insurance deadlines were coming up. People couldn't physically drive in the fields, and (they found) kind of a last gasp at trying to establish a crop."
That last-gasp effort was seeding by airplane.
"You would prefer to drive," says Park, "because that is the ideal way to place seed, place fertilizer, pack seed, get soil-to-seed contact - all the good agronomics that are associated with seeding."
He says seed distributed from an airplane sits on or just slightly below the surface, which may expose it to drying out before it can establish itself.
But farmers used the airplane method on close to 100,000 acres in 2005, Park estimates. "You can cover a lot of acres in a short period of time. It's not perfect, but it's a kind of last resort."
Bestland Agro of Brunkild, Man., is one company offering the seeding-by-air service. In a typical year, the service accounts for "very little" of Bestland's business, says Matt Bestland, the company's president. "But in the past number of years it's been something that guys have been using, mostly as a last-ditch effort."
The president says last year Bestland used its planes to seed about 15,000 acres in the Red River Valley.
The technology of seeding by air is fairly simple (not to be confused with an airseeder, which is a conventional piece of equipment pulled behind a tractor).
For seeding by air, an airplane that is typically used for spraying crops has a hopper, or containment area in the front. Typically the hopper would carry pest-control products, but Bestland says his company has used it for canola seed, alfalfa, flax and other small grains.
When a gate underneath the airplane is opened, seed falls out of the hopper into a spreader, and due to air pressure, is spread the width of the airplane. Global positioning systems (GPS) and other devices on-board help the pilot stay exactly on swath, or on grid. Bestland says the same technique is used for almost all of the rice seeded in the U.S.
Bestland says his 2005 efforts were extremely successful. "We were constantly able to establish five to seven plants per square foot (about 53 plants per square metre)," he says, an establishment rate that is more than enough to meet canola crop insurance minimums of 40 plants per square metre. (An optimal plant population is 16 plants per square foot or 172 plants per square metre.)
Seeding by Bestland's airplanes costs between $7.50 and $9 per acre, depending on location. Bestland says he has heard some conventional tillage going for $5 or $6 an acre, but the higher cost of seeding by air isn't a factor for desperate farmers. "It doesn't seem to be an issue (for farmers) at that point, since it's kind of an emergency-use type of thing."
In 2005, unfortunately, no matter what method of seeding was used, farmers' crops drowned.
"The end result was that nothing worked," says Park. "It just kept on raining. It rained another six, seven inches on top of these little seedlings that had germinated ... they never stood a chance."
Bill Lohr, the insurance agent at the St. Pierre-Jolys location of Manitoba Agriculture Services Corp. (formerly known as Manitoba Crop Insurance Corp.), says it has been difficult for farmers.
"We had a ton of claims" in 2005, says Lohr, "because almost everybody that grew canola had a claim in the long run. So there were a lot of acres seeded by air, and them along with the acres that were seeded conventionally were all in a claim position."
Manitoba farmers also have the fallback of excess moisture insurance (EMI). In 2005, EMI allowed $50-an-acre coverage for growers who weren't able to seed by June 20 because of excess moisture. For 2006, Lohr says the EMI policy offers a higher dollar coverage: up to $75 an acre.
But Lohr says not all farmers take advantage of the policy. "Farmers are so darn optimistic every year ... They figure: 'If we just get it in the ground, it's going to grow.' "
Northern Saskatchewan is consistently wet, and growers have turned to wild rice crops. Would Red River Valley producers consider a similar switch?
"We've talked about that," says Park. "But we're talking about a large area. And in order to switch to a different total production system, it's a pretty tough move. And you just don't make those moves overnight. This land can produce very high-yielding wheat, canola, barley, flax, commodities such as those ... so people will look to do that."
But in 2006, farmers may again face another wet year. Environment Canada forecasts a 30- to 40-per-cent chance that March, April and May will produce above-normal precipitation for the Red River Valley.
Park says that is a concern. The first three weeks of May is when seeding in the area should be moving at full speed. But, he says, "the first week of May is only about six weeks away - less than six weeks away now. And we're sitting with a tremendous amount of snow."
But farmers will be farmers, says Park. "If it's wet again and push comes to shove, and we're approaching the mid to end of June where crop insurance deadlines are saying you can no longer get insurance once you pass that deadline, well, you know, they're farmers. They're born and bred to plant - anyway they can find a way to do it."
Park, in the true optimistic fashion of a farmer, says about the knee-deep snow on the fields right now: "You know, things can turn around. You go plus 15 (degrees) starting next week, and the snow will go away pretty quickly."
(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at email@example.com)