Ken and Brian Vandeburgt have never seen corn so short on their dairy farm near Dewdney, B.C. “Typically we have 12-foot high corn,” Ken says. “This year it’s really short. It looks like Saskatchewan corn.”
The brothers also just finished the third of five cuts of their hay, but the fields are so dry that “the diesel that we burnt was worth more than the feed that we cut.”
In a typical year, the Vandeburgts fight mud on their farm, which sprawls in the valley of the mighty Fraser River in a normally wet, lush part of Canada. But this year’s hot, dry summer across B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan has left thousands of dairy, cattle and grain producers parched, as they grapple with the worst drought in more than a decade.
But Western Canada’s struggles with dry weather leave farmers in much of the world scratching their heads. There is a simple solution to lack of rain, employed to great success all over the world and in much of Canada: irrigation.
Israel, which famously made its deserts bloom, is an agricultural exporter, producing grain, cotton, wheat, sunflowers and citrus fruits, with only a small fraction of Canada’s fresh water.
Israel’s irrigation know-how has also yielded industrial spinoffs. For example, Netafim Irrigation Inc., born on a kibbutz 50 years ago, is now on every continent, employs 4,000 people, and its sales of drip irrigation technology earned revenue last year of about US$750 million.
California, meanwhile, relies on irrigation to produce the bulk of North America’s fresh vegetables. But as California grapples with a four-year drought, it lacks the key resource that Canada boasts in abundance: fresh water.
California must bring water across the Rockies, while farmers in western Canada are near an abundant supply of water in lakes and rivers — if only they could get it to their crops like other farmers do.
The plight of the Vandeburgts contrasts with the broad smile on the face of David Janssens, a fellow B.C. dairy farmer who works 650 acres of the agricultural land reserve in Surrey, just south of Vancouver.
In the late 1990s, after weathering a couple of dry summers, Nicomekl Farms dug trenches and installed high-density, big black flexible pipe across his farm. Big hose reel irrigator sets, like giant guns, irrigate four to five hectares at a time, day and night.
“Investing in irrigation seemed to be the right thing to do,” says Janssens, who milks 450 cows and has six employees.
Other farmers, as their crops wither, see his lush fields and tell him he’s lucky. “It’s not luck, it’s smarts,” he says. “You spend money. It’s not rocket science. It’s pumps and pipes.”
The water, he says, comes from the Nicomekl River, which flows past his farm. “There’s still lots of water around,” he notes. He points to the Fraser, which pours millions of litres of fresh water into the Pacific Ocean every day, water he suggests B.C. could harness to grow food.
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada did not have anyone available to comment for this story.
Another province facing hot and dry weather is Saskatchewan. Farmers here have seen this before, specifically in the Great Depression. “If you think about the Dirty Thirties, it was dry for many, many years,” notes Terri Lang, a warning preparedness meteorologist at Environment Canada in Saskatoon.
Back then, visionaries took action. Starting in 1959, they built the Gardiner Dam (named after Jim Gardiner, a former Saskatchewan minister of agriculture) across the South Saskatchewan River, impeding its flow north towards Hudson’s Bay. On Canada’s 100th birthday, in 1967, water filled the 225-kilometre long reservoir, creating Lake Diefenbaker.
Today, the lake irrigates about 110,000 acres of farmland in southern Saskatchewan. That is a drop in the bucket compared to the lake’s irrigation potential, Roger Pederson says.
Pederson, alongside a brother and a son, uses a central pivot irrigation system, which consists of a pipe device mounted on several sets of wheels that turn on an axis to spray the crops. He draws water from Lake Diefenbaker to irrigate his 900 acres of peas, lentils, fava beans, canola, wheat, barley, potatoes and hay.
“Dry weather doesn’t affect us as much as dryland farmers,” Pederson says of the farmers who solely rely on rain. “It affects our total production not at all. In fact, dry and warm weather is great for us.”
Investing in irrigation seemed to be the right thing to do
Pederson chairs the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association, whose members have long advocated expanding the province’s irrigation network. Even at the height of its growing season, Saskatchewan imports 90 per cent of its fresh vegetables — food it could grow at home with a little imagination and a whole lot of pipe.
“There just hasn’t been the infrastructure in place to allow vegetable production,” Pederson says. “Lake Diefenbaker holds three times the amount of water that Alberta is able to hold in its reservoir system, and Alberta irrigates about 1.5 million acres. Do the math. There’s the potential.”
It’s not due to a lack of talk, he adds. “Conversations have been happening for 20 or 30 years. Up until now, other than small additions to the existing systems, there has been no appetite from the governments. We’re talking a lot of money to irrigate 500,000 acres, but the payback in GDP, and in jobs at the potash mines, would be enormous. It takes political will.”
Not all Saskatchewan farms can benefit from irrigation. Jeff Schoenau, an agrologist in the soil sciences department at the University of Saskatchewan, farms 1,600 acres near Central Butte, about 160 kilometres south of Saskatoon, where he grows canola, wheat, peas and flax.
His drinking water comes from a well, but the sodium content of the water makes it unsuitable to irrigate crops. And he is too far from Lake Diefenbaker to draw its water.
That said, “the crop has held up very well,” he says. “There was a lot of stored soil moisture.”
On Monday, a tremendous deluge drenched Saskatchewan. About 90 millimetres of rain pummelled Regina; it was one of the rainiest days ever recorded in the area. But the torrent came too late to save many crops.
Back in B.C., the Vandeburgt brothers have had lively discussions about whether to invest in irrigation. Their father immigrated in 1956 from Holland and began farming in Dewdney in 1970. He has only seen a year as dry as 2015 once in 45 years.
“We are in a lower-lying area,” says Ken Vandeburgt. “All these years we have been complaining about being stuck in the mud. Normally when people go camping in B.C., it rains every day. Is this a one-off, or is this a trend?”
Either way, this fall he will have to buy hay from Alberta or from Washington State; with the loonie worth 77 cents U.S., that will be expensive.
Still, Ken says, “We can’t complain. We live in B.C. It’s a beautiful place to live.” Nevertheless, he adds, “We might just pull the pin on it, and invest in irrigation and have something for the next generation.”