Barbara Duckworth — Calgary bureau

Alberta may pay close to $1 billion in support payments to farmers this year as crops succumb to drought, grasshoppers and hailstorms.

But other than some additional help for livestock producers, any help will come through existing farm programs.

“We are in a drought,” Alberta agriculture minister Oneil Carlier said at a news conference.

Beyond farm programs, further help for livestock producers who are short of feed and water was announced at the Aug. 6 conference.

Fees will be cut by 50 percent for the emergency water pumping program, retroactive to April 1.

The department of environment has agreed to open unused Crown lands for haying and grazing if there is water and if fences can be built. If a leaseholder is not fully using a grazing allotment, sub-leases will be allowed.

About 800 tonnes of hay have already been harvested from unoccupied Crown lands and additional land has been leased.

And previously, the federal government announced tax deferrals for western Canadian cattle producers who had to sell off breeding herds. However, a wide scale sell off does not seem apparent, said deputy minister David Burdek.

Year-to-date sales volumes are below the number recorded at this time last year and are well below the 30-year average. More might be sold once producers assess their winter feed supplies.

For crops hit by the dought, four programs already in place, including crop insurance, should deliver help if yields fall by a predicted 25-30 percent of normal. About one-third of canola acres and 28 percent of hard spring wheat acres are rated as poor.

Crop insurance has paid out $70 million on 3,000 claims so far this year.

“I believe with the programs we have in place, the agri-insurance program at AFSC (Alberta Financial Services Corp.), will go a long way and it is well subscribed to by producers in the province. It will go a long ways to getting that help they need,” said Carlier.

If current trends continue, $700-$900 million in direct support could be paid to farmers by the end of the growing season, he said.

Besides drought, two nights of hail storms and high winds on Aug. 4 and 5 struck down crops from Calgary to Gem, Alta. The following day a storm front travelled from west of Olds to Strathmore and caused significant damage, said Merle Jacobson, head of Alberta Financial Services Corp., which administers the provincial farm support programs.

But drought remains the major problem. Estimates indicate about 80 percent of Alberta farmers will experience some degree of loss due to the dry weather. Conditions throughout the province are highly variable due to spotty rains. Some may see a small yield loss while others face a total writeoff.

“When we look at the 80 percent that are affected, probably close to half are impacted 50 percent or greater. Those are the ones we are focusing our efforts on,” said Jacobson.

This year’s weather is similar to conditions experienced in 2009, as opposed to the drought of 2002, which was the worst in more than 100 years.

In 2015, farmers took out some of the highest-ever levels of crop insurance coverage. About 80 percent of the seeded acreage, or 14.7 million acres, has been insured for $3.68 billion.

About 6.4 million pasture acres or 29 percent of the pasture acres were insured for $79.9 million.

Hay insurance is available for crops such as alfalfa, legumes and grass. Producers insured 300,000 acres of hay in 2015 with $24.3 million in coverage. Approximately six percent of hay acres are insured in the province, similar to the rate across Canada.

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