'Hard on your mental well-being': Fall storms throw wet blanket on Prairie farmers' harvest

Many Prairie farmers eager to finish their harvest on a high note are instead anxiously waiting on snowy, wet fields to dry out so they get the job done and avoid serious financial losses before winter sets in.

Dreary, snowy conditions raise tensions for Manitoba farmers as hope for warm spell before winter wanes

Swaths lay in a field north of Brandon, Man., at the end of September. Parts of Manitoba received almost as much rain in September as in June, July and August combined, and many farmers are still playing the waiting game after snowfalls during the first week of October. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Many Prairie farmers eager to finish their harvest on a high note are instead anxiously waiting on snowy, wet fields to dry out so they get the job done and avoid serious financial losses before winter sets in.

Parts of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were hit with early autumn snow falls or heavy downpours that have thrown a wet blanket on farmers' normal harvesting schedules. 

"Obviously we want to see the snow melt," said Neil Galbraith, who farms in Basswood, 210 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg and just south of Riding Mountain National Park.

About 40 per cent of his 1,500 hectares of wheat, canola, peas and soybeans are still out in the fields beneath a layer of snow.

Galbraith has managed to get some of the damp grain off the field and dry it by running it through a drying auger. That extra step is less than ideal though, as it takes time and many farmers don't have the equipment because it's costly to set up, said Galbraith.

He worries if the fields don't warm soon that he won't be able to get the remaining harvest to market.

"It's just hard on your mental well-being, because you've got a lot of money [out there]," he said.

Alberta shares in pain

The situation is particularly dire in parts of Alberta hit with record snowfalls last week.

"I think panic is setting in for some producers right now," said Ian Chitwood, who farms near Airdrie, Alta.

There was nearly 30 centimetres of snow on the ground Sunday after the storms, he said.

"Insurance is on top of a lot of producers minds right now," said Chitwood. "If this persists, if this continues, it could get into where producers are starting to claim partial crop losses."

Laurel Thompson, who farms in Mannville, Alta., shares in Chitwood's fears.

A snow-covered canola field is shown in Sexsmith, Alta. in mid-September. ( Greg Sears/Canadian Press-HO)

Though farmers face challenges at all parts of the season, Thompson said this fall is different and farmers are finding support in each other.

"It's quite a remarkable amount of stress that happens on a farm when you've got hundreds of thousands of input loans that need to be paid off with this crop," she said.

"I'm very proud of the way that the farmers are handling the stress together.

'Always optimistic'

Bill Campbell agreed that central to farming life is a commitment to hard work and staying positive in the face of uncertainty.

"They're always optimistic, that's what we do, is we put the seeds in the ground, watch them grow and look after it," said Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers. "We're a pretty strong group and pretty resilient."

This weekend, Campbell repeated concerns he raised at the end of September about how rain and early snowfall could prove costly for Manitoba producers. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Manitoba farmers have been on edge since September, after a dry summer gave way to 115 millimetres of rain in the Winnipeg area over the course of the month, according to Environment Canada. That's compared to 143 mm that fell in total between June and August.

About 18 mm of rain and snow fell in the first seven days of October in Winnipeg. That level of precipitation may not have posed such a problem were it not for the lack of sunny days to melt away the September snow. 

It's a far cry from the bumper crop yielded in Manitoba last September.

"You go 30-some days without combines mowing, it's going to show up somewhere along the line here with this crop," said Campbell.

"Some may be left up through the winter in the field."

'It's quite unusual'

Galbraith said his last decent day running a combine through his fields was Sept. 14.

"It's quite unusual," he said.

Even after much of the September snow in Basswood melted, the area got three days of snow last week, said Galbraith.

"We're still white here," he said. "You can't harvest when there's snow on the crop unless."

Farmers aren't able to combine snow-covered crops without running a risk of plugging up cleaning mechanisms in the combine, although in desperate times some have tried in past Novembers, said Galbraith.

He hopes it doesn't come down to that this fall.

"We just got to hope that the weather melts all this snow off and we'll get some sunny days and that we'll try and get back at it," said Galbraith.

With files from Erin Brohman, Bryce Hoye and CBC Alberta at Noon