Manitoba

Prairie drought drives Canada's canola, wheat production down more than 35%: StatsCan

The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show the drought that ravaged the Prairies this past summer impacted crop production for the entire country — and there are concerns about what the next growing season could look like.

99% of Prairie agriculture land 'abnormally dry' or in drought, says Agriculture and Agri-food Canada

Curtis McRae, a farmer in St. Andrews, Man., says he harvested half the canola he had hoped to this season. Farmers and climate experts are worried about next summer, as 99 per cent of the Prairies' agricultural land remains in a drought. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Curtis McRae opens a half-empty grain bin and picks up a handful of seeds.

"It's not pretty canola," he jokes. 

The farmer from St. Andrews, Man., only managed to grow half the canola he expected this year. All of his grain crops suffered as the Prairies were battered by months of drought.

"They got dry enough that they stopped growing. That was something we haven't seen," he said in an interview with CBC last week. "Throughout the season we knew we were in trouble."

The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show he's not alone.

This summer's drought drove down crop yields for the entire country, the federal agency says. Several major grains grown in Western Canada had the largest yearly yield decrease on record.

Canola production fell 35.4 per cent nationally, and wheat production was down 38.5 per cent, according to data released earlier this month.

Soybean production for the country as a whole was down 1.4 per cent, but in Manitoba, where the drought was the most severe, soybean yields fell 17.1 per cent. Barley and oat production also dropped significantly.

Worst drought in '50 to 60 years'

For McRae, whose farm is just north of Winnipeg, the little precipitation that might have saved his thirsty soybean crop arrived as hail, wiping out that crop along with his wheat. He had to claim crop insurance on almost all of his fields.

"This drought is the worst in 50 to 60 years," said Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, a federal department that provides advice to farmers to better handle extreme weather.

"It was all the way back to 1961 before we can see something even comparable."

A map showing precipitation percentiles from September 2020 until July 2021 illustrates how severe the drought was in the Prairies, especially in Manitoba. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

While drought is a normal occurrence in Western Canada, it is becoming more widespread and severe, Hadwen said. This summer's dry spell stretched from Vancouver Island to northwestern Ontario.

Yields could have been even worse, he said, had it not been for improvements in farming practices.

"That's a benefit to all their management practices — the science that goes into plant breeding and the varieties that are available to producers this year," he said.

Even with farmers doing all they could to get the most out of their crops, though, they were working with increasingly dry soil.

The 2021 growing season was particularly fraught on the Prairies, especially in Manitoba, because it followed a number of dry years.

Manitoba needs above-average precipitation this winter and spring to make up for that, Hadwen said.

So far, that hasn't been the case.

'Hotter, drier and more fiery Prairies'

On the Prairies, 99 per cent of agricultural land is still either "abnormally dry" or in a drought situation, according to the November report from the Canadian Drought Monitor.

It's a sign that climate change is having an immediate impact on Canada's agriculture system, according to the executive director of the University of Winnipeg's Prairie Climate Centre.

"The models, the science, are playing out in real time," said Ian Mauro, an associate professor with the university's geography department. "This is serious stuff."

While it can be difficult to immediately draw a direct connection between climate change and a specific weather event, the drought is exactly what climate experts have warned about, Mauro said.

The science indicates this is exactly what you would expect to happen due to climate change.- Ian Mauro, Prairie Climate Centre, University of Winnipeg

"We can absolutely say that the science indicates that this is exactly what you would expect to happen due to climate change," he said.

"The science ... shows that we're going to have a hotter, drier and more fiery Prairies," he said. A worst-case scenario is the drought continuing year after year.

A silver lining for farmers like Curtis McRae is that the poor growing season led to a higher price for canola.

Still, he says he's cut his budget, holding off on buying any farm equipment and instead prepping fertilizer for next year's crop.

"I don't think you can ever break a farmer's hope."

Read the Statistics Canada report:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC reporter and host based in Winnipeg. She's reported nationally in Toronto and on Parliament Hill, with previous stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca or on social media @CBCMarina.

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