The 2020/21 crop year was good for Canada’s barley industry. According to Statistics Canada, production hit 10.74 million tonnes, the highest level since 2008 when tonnage topped 11.78 million tonnes. The 2020/21 crop is also up 50 per cent from 7.11 million tonnes in 2014, a year that saw the lowest barley production in Canada since 1967.
In a 1914 Maclean’s story entitled “The Third Chapter of Western Growth,” W.D. Albright, reported a stream of newcomers arrived in the Peace Country with the railroad, which had reached Grande Prairie. Wheat and barley yielded very well, he claimed, but production in the region was hampered by a lack of machinery.
Each year, the province’s wheat and barley farmers invest heavily in research and innovation. In fact, the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) and Alberta Barley reserve the largest part of their respective budgets for this programming area—between $4.5 and $5 million annually combined. And while farmers set the priorities and make funding decisions, the commissions’ research team makes sure they get the maximum return on investment from every dollar.
On coffee farms across Central and South America, a vicious invader called coffee rust has devastated the livelihoods of farmers and forced them off their land. In Colombia, a long-feared nightmare known as Panama disease, which destroyed banana production in Asia and then the Middle East in the 1990s, now threatens to end global banana production as we know it. Closer to home, a whole list of epidemic diseases from wheat stem rust to potato and tomato late blight have spread through cropland and have bitten into yield.
With the use of new biotechnology processes known as gene editing, a revolution in plant breeding technology is now underway. Methods such as CRISPR/Cas9, the best-known gene editing process, can carry out targeted changes within crop and livestock genes. Naturally, there is fear within the farm and agri-food sectors that foods produced via this technology will face public resistance as GMO crops once did.
Pests are a top concern for farmers, especially those with limited management options. Wireworms are one pervasive example. A misnomer, they are not actually worms but rather the larval form of click beetles. These sneaky creatures can wreak havoc on fields as they hollow out seeds and shred stems in cereal crops. Hard to identify and even harder to manage, these small but mighty pests can devastate entire fields.
Nearly 38 years after he entered the industry, George Clayton remains fully enamoured with agriculture. From his first position in which he studied soil conservation and no-till to later research on integrated crop management with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Clayton simply loved his work. Even after retirement, leaving the world of crops and soil behind wasn’t an option. He traded one kind of field work for another, and now spends his days, and nights, chasing down the best Alberta farm scenes with a camera. What started as a hobby Clayton practiced in his spare time has turned into a second career as he captures the beauty of Prairie farms.
Fairytale characters spin straw into gold, but could demand for wheat straw create a gold rush for farmers? The question has arisen with the recent announcement of the $800 million Great Plains MDF facility in the hamlet of Equity, in Kneehill County. The plant will process wheat straw to produce medium density fibreboard (MDF) products such as furniture, panelling, flooring and kitchen cabinets. This and a similar project proposed for Regina, SK, are expected to boost the long-term demand for wheat straw and provide a marketing opportunity for farmers. To calculate the economics and agronomic impact is a more complex task than one might imagine.
Agricultural research facilities are critical to the forward momentum of Peace Country farming. Established in 1917, the Beaverlodge Research Farm is the most northerly Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research centre. The wide scope of its programming reflects the sheer size of the region. This encompasses research on forage production and integrated crop management as well as disease and pest management and honey bee pathology.
The first all-weather road to link Alberta’s Peace Country to the rest of the world was built in the 1930s. As road trips go, it was a doozy. The dirt track was no more than a glorified trail that linked Edmonton with Fort St. John in northeast British Columbia by way of Lesser Slave Lake. A South Peace Historical Society writeup describes it as “a twisting, squirming route that turned into an impassable bog of gumbo after frequent cloudbursts.” It was known locally as the worst road in North America.