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The life of the Red River

It took vision to turn the Red River Valley into some of Canada’s most productive farmland. And it still takes vision to farm it today

Erich Vetter was looking for challenge and opportunity when he abandoned Germany’s heavily regulated agriculture 13 years ago. In the valley, he says, he’s found plenty of both.

Two centuries ago, when the Scottish settlers first began to arrive, the Garden of Eden was nowhere in sight. This place was marsh, it seemed all but useless, and it took farmers to find the value in Manitoba’s famously fertile Red River Valley and to make it habitable.

The valley was 60 per cent wetland and its ability to sustain human life was meagre at best, so those settlers did what farmers always do. They got on with it. They began digging drainage ditches. By 1881, there were already 320 kilometres of ditches across the sparsely settled valley.

Called the guru of the Red River Valley, Brunel Sabourin knows it wasn’t just the wetlands that made settlement iffy. There was the periodic flooding by the Red River too, because in the springs when the fields flood, the water hangs around. It pools on top because the clay underneath doesn’t let water pass through. The clay expands when wet and blocks seepage. But that clay has also helped produce some of the best soil on the continent. When it expands, it also stops nutrients from flowing through. So the nutrients stay close to the surface where plant roots can access them.

For Brunel Sabourin, the valley’s outstanding productivity is a rich story of farmers working with the environment to feed the world. photo: Sandy Black

Today, the valley is a mere one per cent marsh, with tens of thousands of kilometres of drainage ditches. Drain by drain, ditch by ditch, farmers and municipal governments transformed the Red River Valley into a massive water redistribution system. “The Red River Valley has one of the largest engineered drainage systems in the world,” points out Don Flaten, University of Manitoba soil scientist.

You have to wonder, in the current environmental climate, would the land ever be drained today if those Scottish settlers, or some modern day equivalent, happened across the Red River Valley now?

The valley is also known for its rich soil and amazing cereal crop production. It can’t compare to vegetable- growing areas in Ontario, or production in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, where there are longer growing seasons. “But it’s certainly right up there as one of the most productive areas in Canada, and in the Prairie region for sure,” Flaten says.

Wheat is king out here, in case you haven’t heard. Or perhaps canola is now king, in terms of dollar return. Or perhaps wheat is king, and canola is the queen, with its cheery yellow blooms. Whatever the case, the Red River Valley is their red carpet. The valley runs from Winnipeg to the international border, then west as far as the Manitoba Escarpment and east to the Canadian Shield.

It’s fairly typical for producers here to take off 70 to 80 bushels of wheat per acre, says Sabourin, a private agronomist with Antara Agronomy Services out of St. Jean Baptiste, straight south of Winnipeg and about 30 kilometres from the Canada-U.S. border.

The valley’s production is also dependable. “It’s rare that we’ll miss a crop or have a complete failure,” even in flood years, Sabourin says.

Just look at the yield numbers from Manitoba crop insurance. From 2017-19, the valley punched out an average 69.3 bushels per acre of red spring wheat, easily the most productive region in the province and fully six bushels above the provincial average that year. In 2017, Red River farmers averaged 75.8 bushels per acre of wheat, with most other crop districts yielding at least 10 bushels less.

The difference is just as great with canola. For the same three-year period 2017-19, the Red River Valley procured average yields of 50.2 bushels per acre, four bushels higher than the next most productive region.

And how was 2020? For Dave Laudin, who farms near Brunkild just southwest of Winnipeg, his yields were lights out.

His red spring wheat averaged 77 bushels per acre, and his oats crop averaged 168 bushels. Stir in sky-high protein levels, and he had a great year.

That’s despite having only about 50 per cent of normal precipitation on his 5,000-plus acres that a local history book says were in the middle of a swamp in the late 1800s. “Surveyors made a note saying this land could be very productive if only this swamp could be drained,” Laudin says.

Today, the valley can probably withstand drought better than anywhere else on the Prairies. “How do you grow a crop on four-to-five inches of rain all summer long? That’s gone on for the past two-to-three years,” Laudin says.

“Our soil loves a drought. It’s actually one of the few ways it will open up, and open up the soils down deep,” meaning the underlying clay. He’d rather not talk about his soybean production (28 bushels per acre) “but with all of my other crops, it was probably the highest yields I’ve ever had.”

The Red River Valley allows producers a great variety of crop growing options, says Brunel Sabourin. photo: Sandy Black

The valley allows producers a great variety of options, says Sabourin, from heat-loving crops like corn, soybeans and potatoes (on sandier loams); to cereal grains like wheat, oats and barley; to oilseeds like canola, sunflowers, flax and soybeans; to pulse crops like peas, dry edible beans and fava beans, as well as some forages and perennial ryegrass for the turf market.

Land prices run from $4,000 to $6,000 per acre “for a median value in around $5,000, plus or minus 10 per cent,” says Gordon Daman, president of appraisal company Red River Group.

But if you go to the eastern side of the valley where there is a large concentration of dairy farms in need of spreader acres, land prices are more like $5,000 to $7,000, Daman says.

And if you go on the west side of the Red River Valley to where the sandy loam left over from glacial Lake Agassiz beaches which can be used for potato production, the land prices range from $7,000 to $8,000, and can go as high as $12,000, he says.

In Ontario, where land along the lakes can run to $25,000 an acre, those values may not seem great, while farmers in Saskatchewan might wonder if they are seeing correctly because the figures look too high. In Ontario, longer growing seasons and greater population density contribute to its higher prices. In Saskatchewan, provincial legislation to restrict outside land-buying has held prices down for people who strictly want to farm, Daman says.

John Heard, Manitoba Agriculture soil specialist, helps us dig deeper into the Red River Valley soil issue.

While Red River soil has a high humus content, it is unique in that it has only two horizons, or layers, versus three or more horizons in most soils, he says. The valley has a very black topsoil and a layer of grey soil beneath it.

It’s more evidence the area was previously marsh. “Normally, water moves down in soil and over thousands of years that helps develop soil horizons,” Heard explained. But the valley was usually too wet to get full soil development.

It hasn’t hurt fertility. Instead, Red River soil “is a sponge for nutrients,” Heard says. Much of the reason is the clay bottom but it’s also because standing water slowed the decomposition of plant life, allowing organic material to accumulate. For decomposition, you need well-oxygenated conditions. But these waterlogged soils amassed large portions of organic matter.

He’s seen black soil up to 12 inches deep in the valley. And its colour is like no other. “There’s nothing blacker than that soil,” Heard says. The rest of the country “can only dream of having organic matter in their soils like the Red River Valley.” Compare that with Ontario, where Heard is originally from, whose topsoil is mostly brown because it comes from forest decomposition, versus the valley’s soil produced from Prairie marsh grasses.

But whereas lack of moisture is the main limiting factor for crop production on the prairies, too much water is the bane of the Red River Valley.

For example, Laudin, from Brunkild, has converted his tractors and combine to caterpillar tracks. That’s not unusual in the valley where equipment is prone to get stuck in clay soil that also goes by the unflattering name of Red River Gumbo. By avoiding compaction, Laudlin may get an extra two or three bushels an acre of crop, he says.

Neither does spring flooding replenish the soils the way the Nile River replenishes the deltas of Egypt. Red River flooding doesn’t drop loads of nutrients on the land. Instead, flooding can physically cart away nutrients like phosphorus. To prevent that, farmers apply fertilizer below the soil surface to hide it from spring flooding. Preventing nutrient runoff makes both economic and environmental sense, keeping nutrients from winding up in Lake Winnipeg where they might feed oxygen-depleting algae blooms.

Flooded land can also cause denitrification where nitrogen in soil is converted to nitrous oxide gas, which is a greenhouse gas. It’s harmful to farmers, too, because they lose a valuable nutrient.

When Erich Vetter immigrated from Germany 13 years ago, he thought he was moving to Manitoba, not the Netherlands. He was looking for a challenge, he says. He found it in the floodwaters of the Red River Valley.

Vetter moved to the St. Jean Baptiste area, which is often the first place to flood every year. From 30 to 70 per cent of Vetter’s 5,000 acres near the Red River gets overland flooding each spring, whether it’s a flood year or not. He’d never dealt with flooding before where he came from in southern Germany, with its rolling fields and view of the Swiss Alps.

The funny thing is he’s never had a bad crop in a flood year. So long as he can still seed in May, he does well. The flooding seems to remove the frost from the ground and provide good subsoil moisture to give crops a good start, he says. “The water comes and goes, that’s a given. The point is how quickly does it go away, which determines our seeding time.”

The clay is a product of glacial Lake Agassiz that covered this region 10,000 years ago, formed by the melting back of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The lake dropped heavier material like sand and gravel when its waves crashed the shore, forming beaches, while retreating waves carried lighter material like silt and clay back into the lake. Clay is the lightest material, much lighter than silt, so it was the last to fall in the centre of the lake. The lake centre happened to be right over the Red River Valley.

The next significant clay bed out West is around Regina in Saskatchewan, formed by glacial Lake Regina. But the lifespan of that glacial lake can be measured in hundreds of years, whereas Lake Agassiz hung around for 5,000 years. Clay deposits up to 70 metres deep are found in the Red River Valley.

Where Vetter came from in Germany, the soil was way lighter, a sandy loam. He could be back on his fields within two days of a heavy rainfall. In the valley, he may have to park his seeder for a week after a rain. He’s adapted, and has also put caterpillar tracks on his tractor and combine.

Vetter isn’t complaining. Anyone griping about farming in Canada should have a talk with him.

To outsiders who get their news from the headlines, the valley is synonymous with devastating floods. Vetter sees it differently. He’s never had a bad crop in a flood year. photo: Sandy Black

“I love it here. I really love it,” he says. In Germany, operating within the European Union, there were always new laws and bylaws coming to make farming more restrictive. “It was overwhelming,” he says. To him as a farmer, Canada is freedom.

Ease of farming is another thing Red River Valley farmers talk about. In Germany, Vetter says his average field size was 25 to 30 acres, compared to 150 to 160 acres now. The fact that he can operate corner to corner on the bigger fields, with few obstacles like creeks or trees, makes farming more efficient.

His 2020 was an above-average year with his wheat clocking in at 63 bushels per acre. As for soybeans, Manitoba doesn’t get anywhere near the yields as Ontario, where more heat units and a longer growing season allow for more choice of varieties. But soybeans, which are still relatively new to Manitoba since around the turn of this century, are easy to grow and a great rotation crop. He was satisfied with an average 42-bushel yield in 2020. The previous year he had only 16 bushels.

But for all its productivity advantage, the Red River Valley needs to extract more to offset higher equipment costs, says Eldon Klippenstein, who farms near the international border by the village of Halbstadt, between Altona and Emerson.

Drainage systems are one extra cost. Klippenstein is trying to crunch the numbers to see if he can someday afford a tiling system: lengths of flat plastic piping with slits on top running underground every 40 feet to whisk away excess moisture. Tiling also allows for air pockets to form in the ground, which allows for better root development and, ultimately, better yields.

Another extra cost is tillage equipment. The fields get rutted up badly from fieldwork because of how clay soils hold moisture.

“In hilly country where the water runs off, you don’t have big ruts to deal with,” he says. “We need an extra 15 per cent (return) to offset the cost of more equipment.” For that reason, he doesn’t grow a lot of wheat or canola, but tries to grow higher-value crops like corn and sunflowers.

Despite the challenges the Red River Valley presents, Klippenstein is happy to make one significant claim. “We have never lost a crop. We’ve been close but we tend to find ways to still produce crops in the worst of years.”

If it hadn’t been drained

“A place does not have to be untouched by man, or labelled a wilderness, in order to be beautiful,” writes Tom Isern, in his most recent book, Pacing Dakota. Isern is a historian/sage/raconteur of the Northern Great Plains who lives in the Red River Valley but on the U.S. side in North Dakota.

Bill Toews would probably agree with Isern. Toews, now retired, is considered an authority on the Red River Valley after farming it for 39 years near the hamlet of Kane.

It was Toews, during an interview, who posited the question: What if the Red River Valley had never been drained?

Toews doubts there would be grain farming in the valley if today’s environmental standards existed in the 1800s. “People could argue whether it was foresight or bad environmental management when they converted all those bogs into productive land,” he says. “Some would see it as environmental damage, others would see it as a gift.”

Someone of Toews’s progressive politics might even be expected to side with the environment protectionists on that. But he does not.

“You have to do more than just take pictures of animals,” he says, in a blunt comment to those who argue against human intervention.

That does not mean Toews opposes today’s stricter laws on drainage to help preserve the little wetland that is left, and to mitigate downstream flooding.

But the benefits of the past drainage outweigh the negatives, in his opinion. The region has fed tens of millions of people over hundreds of years, generations of families at home and abroad of all different backgrounds and nationalities.

“I think it’s been a fairly good policy to drain the land, and then provide structure to control where the water goes,” says Toews.

Neither would Canada be as prosperous today, or Winnipeg as large as it is, if not for the drainage that allowed the region to become more habitable and make itself a leading grain production centre. Says Toews, “There’s no question in my mind that providing these drains has made a huge impact on the area.”

Bill Redekop is a freelance writer out of Winnipeg. His most recent book is “Lake Agassiz: The Rise and Demise of the World’s Greatest Lake.”

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