Canadian grain belt hit by drought, faces poor harvest. One-quarter of area received less than two inches of rain since June

More than half of Canada's grain belt is parched. Harvest is still a few weeks away on the fertile prairies, but most farmers in southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan already know that they have lost their crop to drought again this year. For some it is the second year in a row to have a poor yield. Others have not had a good crop for five years.

Graham Walker, director of Weather and Crop Surveillance for the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg, says about 60 percent of the country's seeded area (slightly bigger than Kansas) has been affected to some degree by insufficient moisture.

The worst part of the devastation roughly follows a line from Red Deer to Lloydminister, Alberta, then into the southwestern corner of Saskatchewan. Dr. Walker says, ``Everything south of that line is in pretty serious shape.''

He adds that the area, about one-quarter of the grain belt, has received less than two inches of rain since June and ``a lot of crops are written off.''

Doug Murfin farms near Lethridge, an area where this drought is the worst in 83 years of weather records. By this time of year the young farmer's 950 acres of wheat should be waist-high, but the shriveled stalks pathetically poking through the dust barely reach his ankle. The crop isn't good enough for cattle feed.

Mr. Murfin says, ``We won't even start the combine up this year.''

But that isn't all he has to cope with.

``We are praying for weeds just to hold the soil,'' says Murfin. He notes that soil erosion filled in a man-made waterhole that measured 30 by 40 feet and was 14 feet deep.

Even though production costs are covered by insurance, successive crop failures have forced many farmers to mortgage to the hilt. Murfin says this year he will ``bump through somehow,'' but others have found drought, soil erosion, and record grasshopper infestation too much.

The federal government's Farm Credit Corporation estimates that in Alberta alone some 50 farmers have called it quits in the last two months.

Cattlemen are also being hit hard.

Lush pastures are brown and many ranchers are selling parts of their herds. For instance, a livestock auction market near Calgary sold 600 head in the past three weeks. Normally it would sell 20 head at this time of year.

The Alberta and Saskatchewan governments have announced some drought relief programs for farmers, but many are waiting for the conclusion of a special task force headed by the Progressive Conservative government in Ottawa.

Many hope that a comprehensive framework will be established to deal with drought. For Saskatchewan wheat farmer Bill Giblett that would come none too soon.

In his 33 years of farming, he says he has never seen anything like this. From mid-May until the end of June, farmers in his area sprayed steadily to control grasshoppers.

It cost about $296,000 (US), but Mr. Giblett says, ``the grasshopper situation is out of control again.'' He adds that in many fields there is no stubble because the ``grasshoppers are eating it to the ground.''

Giblett suggests that if the local agricultural economy is to be salvaged, farmers would have to receive at least $37 per seeded acre in compensation from the government. He claims cattlemen need $74 a head.

Meanwhile, a weather specialist at the federal agriculture department in Lethbridge, Barry Grace, can provide no projection when the drought might end.

The only comfort he can provide to many farmers who are banking on next year is that this year's drought ``doesn't preclude an excellent situation next year.'' As he sees it, ``Every year is a new ball game.''

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