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“Let’s make some food”

Canada has enormous potential to increase irrigation in Saskatchewan. So why is so little happening?

Using only 20 per cent of the available supply, there is enough water running through Saskatchewan’s Gardiner Dam at Lake Diefenbaker to irrigate half a million acres. The potential for farm diversification and value-added processing would add billions to the national agriculture economy and cement Canada’s role in feeding a hungry world. And the other 80 per cent of the water allocated to the province through agreements with Alberta and Manitoba could be used to support burgeoning resource industries in the province and provide for the needs of growing municipal districts around major centres including Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.

So say reports from the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association (SIPA), the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre (CSIDC), and the Saskatchewan ministry of agriculture. Back in 2009, a SIPA study showed that a $3 billion investment over 40 years at a five percent discount rate would provide a cost/benefit ratio of 4:1 from agriculture and 15:1 from resulting value-added activity. It would provide for 384,000 person years employment and contribute $35 billion to provincial GDP.

Today only 110,000 acres are irrigated from Lake Diefenbaker, and the system uses only two per cent of the water available. It begs the question: why is it taking so long for the province to expand its irrigation infrastructure to reach such huge potential?

Back in 1967, those who built the Diefenbaker Dam envisioned exactly the scenarios outlined in recent studies — to build a critical mass of acres that would attract processing, and to provide hydro power, municipal water supplies and recreational opportunities — but the government halted expansion in 1973 and successive governments have stayed that course with only small infill projects added through the last two Growing Forward programs.

What will be required are huge and complex infrastructure projects. And, of course, money.

While the proper uses of the world’s scarce water sources will increasingly be debated, the data for a Saskatchewan economy with expanded irrigation is pretty conclusive. And one only has to look across the border to Alberta as reference.

Read for more context: Where science and politics meet

Mark Gravelle knows how it could be. He has farmed under irrigation in both provinces, and now crops 3,000 acres in the Riverhurst Irrigation District in southern Saskatchewan. He’s 28 years old, and originally from Bow Island, Alta., where his dad farmed under irrigation for years. When his dad was ready to think about retirement, Saskatchewan became part of the succession plan. Gravelle couldn’t pencil out land costs in Alberta anymore, but he looked east and saw big opportunity. In 2009 they sold their land in Alberta, bought in Saskatchewan and Gravelle Ag is now one of the biggest irrigators in the province.

“Among the best things about growing under irrigation are the cropping options,” Gravelle says. He grows edible beans, durum, spring wheat, flax and canola. Witnessing its success in Alberta, he grew hemp for the first time this year, and soybeans, though he says those didn’t work out so well.

While it costs a few more dollars per acre to farm under irrigation in Saskatchewan, Gravelle says he would never go back to the Alberta system. “The Riverhurst system is state of the art,” he says. “You press a button and it works. There are far fewer headaches than in Bow Island because there we had to phone and order water 24 hours in advance and then physically turn it on. It’s open ditch irrigation there and much more complicated… because it’s simpler here, one guy can manage a lot more acres.”

Many Saskatchewan dryland farmers might wince at the cost of growing under irrigation. Over and above regular input costs, Gravelle calculates his irrigation costs at $50 per acre for water and power, plus the long-term capital expenditure for pivot costs (Sask Ag estimates pivot costs at around $800 per acre).

“But when you can get 30 bushels-per-acre canola on dryland, and 65 bushels per acre under irrigation, to me it’s a no-brainer,” Gravelle says.

In fact, 2011 data from a provincial study found that dryland grown canola has gross returns of $419 per acre with a contribution of $80 per acre, whereas on irrigated land in the Diefenbaker Lake district, those returns are $825 gross with a contribution of $282.

Gravelle’s can-do attitude might reflect his Alberta roots. “In Alberta guys are lining up to pay $1,800 per acre for water rights,” he says. “Those water rights are free in the Riverhurst area and guys are still slow in picking them up.”

He sounds pretty incredulous at that. But he does see one negative about growing under irrigation in Saskatchewan, one that might be solved with the very infrastructure proposed by all those studies.

Gravelle spends a huge amount of time and money getting his crops to processors. Where? In Alberta of course. With his bean processor in far-off Taber, he bought a truck this spring and put 17,000 km on it in one month.

“That’s where Alberta has us beat,” he says. “We were only hauling one mile to the bean plant there. I spoke with one bean processor in North Dakota who said he wouldn’t consider a processing plant in Saskatchewan until there were at least 30,000 acres of beans grown. It’s the same with potatoes.”

But while it’s slow, Gravelle is seeing a shift in attitudes that is turning into more irrigated acres. In fact he’s seen more development in the Riverhurst area in the past three months than he’s seen in the three years prior, and he credits strong crop markets and high land prices. Rather than shell out for expensive land, farmers would rather spend money to irrigate what they have and grow high-value crops more intensively.

It’s a trend John Linsley believes will continue. It takes time for farmers to buy into irrigation because their investment costs go through the roof and they need the cash flow for that, but Linsley firmly believes infrastructure needs to be in place to capture the opportunities.

Linsley is the assistant director of the crops and irrigation branch of Saskatchewan Agriculture. He works closely with the CSIDC in Outlook, Sask., where economically and environmentally sustainable irrigation practices are researched and promoted. Applied research on crops, technologies and best management practices at the centre have contributed to projects across Canada and around the world, and provide leverage for the arguments for irrigation expansion in Saskatchewan.

From the Alberta Farmer Express website: Irrigation water use doubles between 2010 and 2012

Linsley uses the Riverhurst area as an example of how things could evolve. It took 10 years to plan and construct the district system and farmers started out growing the field crops they knew. Very quickly they began to investigate beans and potatoes. Then 14 guys with no prior experience started growing 65 acres of potatoes. They survived, grew, found markets and now crop 800 acres in a multi-million dollar operation, even selling Saskatchewan seed potatoes to the vegetable’s traditional home, P.E.I.

Linsley believes it’s the kind of evolution that can happen if irrigation is available. He says it requires good production and good management in order to pay back on investment, and it will require new opportunities for increasing revenues. But it’s worth it for both farmers and the larger rural Saskatchewan economy.

“Irrigation changed the face of Riverhurst,” Linsley says. An 800-acre irrigated potato farm employs as many as 30 people, where a single farmer can work five quarters of dry land. Where dwindling populations and the loss of services to small communities have been the trend, irrigation creates new demands for employment, inputs and equipment, “creating an economy that was not there before… it’s a rural economy issue that evolves well beyond the farm gate.”

Imagine if that economy was spread over 500,000 acres.

The success of the Saskatchewan potato (a case study)

In terms of farming under irrigation, Saskatchewan can look to the lowly spud as a test case in success, particularly the Northern Vigour seed potato. In 2011 the province grew 7,000 acres of potatoes and produced 1.9 million cwt (or 190 million pounds). That’s an increase of 10 per cent from the previous year.

Harry Meyers is chair of the board of True North Seed Potato Co. Ltd., a high generation seed farm in the Outlook Irrigation District near Diefenbaker Lake. The company is a strategic alliance between HB Management Ltd, a potato management company, and Green Valley Farms made up of irrigation land owners in the area. Some 2,500 acres of irrigated land are committed to True North under contract, producing around 6,000 tonnes of seed each year which is sold to process growers all over North America and is available to other seed growers for reproduction.

This year the company produced an average of 12 to 13 tonnes per acre. While seed is the focus, True North also produces for the fresh potato market. According to Meyers, prices fluctuate as much as 40 per cent from year to year, and the company’s ability to size its potatoes gives it an advantage in a fussy market; seed should be small, fresh should be large, and True North sells both, depending on market prices.

The farmers supplying land to True North do not participate in potato production. Instead the contract allows for a good rotation in their irrigated crops. Most rotations are potatoes, canola and a cereal. Meyers says they are looking at a fourth year in the rotation with edible beans.

“Our claim to fame is on the seed side, particularly the Northern Vigour variety,” says Meyers. “We have good isolation from disease and good rotations. Where growth will happen (in the province) is on the seed side… the fresh market is difficult to get into because it is mature. People are not eating more potatoes. In fact there’s been a slow decline, so anyone wanting to sell into the fresh market has to be willing to displace somebody. Seed is different. You can develop a reputation for quality.”

True North’s fresh product is washed and graded locally and sent to affiliate companies in Saskatoon, Calgary and Surrey for packing and labelling. Meyers feels in this way the company is vertically integrated. The seed potatoes are graded and shipped in bulk.

To his mind, expansion of the industry will depend on markets and not on the availability of land or irrigation. Does he see potatoes turned into french fries within Saskatchewan in the near future? No.

“It’s not a market with a lot of opportunities today. We missed that boat and plants have already been built in Manitoba and Alberta,” Meyers says. “There was a flurry of activity under (premier Roy) Romanow, but those of us who survived the bad decisions made then have strengthened our reputation, and markets are opening up and will continue to open up if we do things right.”

He’s referring to the SPUDCO incident of the late ’90s when Sask Water teamed up with the Lake Diefenbaker Potato Corporation in a private/public partnership to increase potato acres in the province. They invested $20 million into high tech storage facilities that were never fully utilized. Then, when the company finally went bankrupt, many farmers suffered heavy losses.

Could it be the memory of SPUDCO prevents producers from signing up for those free water rights Mark Gravelle talks about? Scientists, economists and governments see the water, see the land, and see the need to put the two together to grow food for a hungry world and through it, to grow the provincial economy. It will be up to them to create policy and regulations around water use. And to build the infrastructure. But will Saskatchewan farmers come?

Perhaps Sask Ag’s John Linsley provides the best picture of actual water use in an expanded Saskatchewan irrigation system.

Water flows into the province from Alberta, which typically sends about 80 per cent of the flow downstream. Through agreements Saskatchewan is entitled to 50 per cent before sending it further downstream to Manitoba.

Right now Saskatchewan uses less than five percent.

In other parts of the world 70 to 80 per cent of water consumption is used for agriculture, Linsley says. “We think it is reasonable to suggest that 20 per cent go to agriculture.”

“Even with climate change and the potential for drought, we can store and irrigate for two to three years without any flow,” Linsley says. “The 2001 drought was as close as we ever came to using our 50 per cent, and we were able to sort it out with Alberta, so it can be done.”

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