EDMONTON — Alberta's agriculture minister says a prolonged drought could see grain production drop by 25 to 30 per cent this year but he isn't ready to declare a provincewide state of agricultural emergency.
Oneil Carlier said during a recent tour of some parched regions, the crops barely came up over his ankle.
"It's no doubt we are in a drought situation. There's no doubt there's some challenges being faced by many of the producers in the province,'' Carlier said Thursday.
A total of 17 municipalities have declared local states of agricultural emergency and are asking the Alberta government for help.
Carlier said at this point crop insurance programs available to producers are sufficient as a `"first line of defence'' and there's no need to declare a provincewide emergency.
"What it does is raise awareness in the public eye and perhaps the media. It doesn't necessarily trigger anything. It's the same thing if we declare it on a provincial basis,'' he said.
"It doesn't necessarily make any difference on what programs might or might not be available. It is a drought.''
The provincial government has responded by cutting rental fees in half for a program that helps farmers pump water to fill their dams and dugouts.
The province is also working with municipalities to identify additional public lands for grazing to help producers feed their livestock. Saskatchewan announced a similar measure last month to help its producers.
Alberta Agriculture officials say about 80 per cent of grain producers will be affected by the bone dry weather. Of that number about half could see crop yields drop to less than 50 per cent of the five-year average.
It's expected crop insurance will have to pay out between $700 million and $900 million this year.
Keith Degenhardt, a senior official with the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, said grain producers will have to do some serious belt tightening this fall and winter. He's more concerned about the livestock sector where producers face steep hay prices.
"We were paying $60 to $80 a tonne last year if we were buying or selling,'' he said.
"This year you're talking up to $250 a tonne mark so you're talking almost a four-fold increase.''
The Harper government announced a program last month that allows western livestock producers in regions hit by drought to defer a portion of their 2015 sale proceeds of breeding livestock for one year so that they can replenish that stock.
Degenhardt said he would like to see some sort of provincial government assistance to either help with the high cost of feed or at least transportation costs.
Carlier said it is too soon to commit to that kind of aid.
"It's too early to speculate on what programs we may need to look at later. I know with the tax deferral system that will help a little bit for folks that are looking at shortages of feed,'' said Carlier.
"We're assessing the situation as the season progresses and keeping our options open.''
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