CROP RESEARCH: Lewis Baarda gave his presentation at the Farming Smarter Conference. PHOTO BY HEATHER CAMERON

The 2024 Farming Smarter Conference which was held recently at the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge included a presentation from Lewis Baarda, the On-Farm Research authority at Farming Smarter, about irrigated specialty crop research. 

“Here in southern Alberta, we’re located in a bit of a unique agricultural production region,” said Baarda. “We’re influenced by climatic factors, geography with access to irrigation water, soil that’s suitable for irrigation, and we have a population of farmers that are relatively ambitious and innovative. Because of that, we have a rather diverse irrigated specialty crop sector that is diverse and it’s quite profitable as well.” 

Using a map, Baarda highlighted the growing degree days for the prairie provinces and showed that the southern portion of the province gets the most heat, and between Lethbridge and Northern Ontario and Southern Manitoba, there is lots of heat throughout the growing season. When one looks into central Saskatchewan, Central Alberta, and Manitoba, Baarda said, there is considerably more moisture than is received in the southern prairies. Looking at Lethbridge by this metric, they’re looking at four to seven inches of rainfall. 

“This is a big influence in how we grow crops and the crops we can grow and really highlights the need for irrigation waters to supplement better our production systems,” said Baarda. 

Baarda then showed a map of the soil zones in Alberta, saying that part of it is influenced by that climate. 

“In many, many years of hot and dry periods of weather, we’re not developing as much organic matter over the years, and we also have unique parent material,” said Baarda. It’s lacustrine soil, sort of silty, loam type soils. That all kind of influences and also makes the soil quite suitable for irrigation, which of course we’ve got a relatively plentiful source just to the west of us and the Rockies, and we can use gravity to convey that water to us, so we’re ideally situated to be using irrigation for production.” 

Baarda stated that in the average growing season, precipitation is about six to seven inches, but in recent years, it’s been a lot grimmer than that: less than four inches, less than two inches, maybe even less than an inch in some areas in this past year. Moisture, Baarda said, is a pretty important piece in allowing the agricultural industry to be as productive as they are in the region. 

Baarda stated that 70 percent of the irrigation in Canada actually constitutes in Alberta, and Alberta has three primary districts that house those speciality crops: St. Mary, which includes the former Taber Irrigation District; Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District; and Bow River Irrigation District. 

Then, Baarda went through a couple of maps that showed distribution of crops grown on the prairies that includes the relative density of a variety of crops. Baarda said that relative to other areas on the prairies, such as other areas in Alberta, southern Alberta is not really a big canola grower; barley is highly concentrated, sort of in the Highway 2 corridor which lines up a lot with livestock production; cereals go more broadly, still that same concentration in Alberta, but there’s a lot more grown across the prairies; edible beans have very little grown outside of east of Lethbridge, and corn has even more concentrated in Lethbridge. 

“One of the things we’ve noticed with some of these very specialized, highly concentrated industries, because they don’t have that footprint in terms of acreage as some of the other crops, it’s a little more challenging to get relevant research to support those industries,” said Baarda. “They often draw on research or draw on practices that have been gathered from other areas with maybe different climates, different contexts, different cropping systems, and it is important for us to take the time and energy to research locally and regionally how they adapt to our climate, and our cropping system.” 

Baarda then showed a chart to illustrate that about 20 per cent of irrigated acres across the province are specialty crops, and among those specialty crops, the amount of potatoes have grown from 40,000 acres to 60,000 acres in the last 10 years, and the amount has increased by 10,000 acres from 2020 to 2022. If expansion continues, Baarda said, it needs to be done responsibly and in a way that it can be integrated with all the other crops they grow in a way that production can be protected. 

“Irrigation is unique not because of the crop grown, but it’s also just a lot of the production factors that fit into the irrigation dynamics,” said Baarda. 

Several factors, including high production, seeding systems, consideration in how much to invest how much is gotten out of a yield, and water management, are all going to be important to understand moving forward, Baarda said. 

“The profitability of irrigation is an important consideration,” said Baarda. “We have the capacity to put big investments. We do put big investment not only in terms of crop inputs to maximize our yields, but land values as well are a lot higher under irrigation. There’s a high risk, high reward in that irrigation environment. That’s an important consideration when we think about how important it is to be generating a robust data set and management practices for our irrigator crops that are relevant locally.” 

Baarda then provided examples of some of the research that Farming Smarter has done on a few different specialty crops and those crops included fresh peas, seed canola, winter camelina, fall rye, winter wheat, winter lentils, Italian ryegrass, sugar beet cover crops, winter wheat, winter peas, corn, and seed alfalfa. 

To conclude his presentation, Baarda touched upon what’s next for irrigated speciality crops and mentioned that there’s opportunity for continued research, decision support systems, and making sure that growers have information about what’s happening in the soil so they can make informed decisions regarding water. 

Baarda also mentioned that he saw a lot of opportunity within the potato industry, as it draws a lot of information from other places and a lot of Farming Smarter’s research comes from Eastern Canada, Idaho, and Washington. To his knowledge, Baarda said, not a lot of the information has really been adapted in a research context, or tested and verified in a research context here in Southern Alberta.  

“I hope I’ve made a good case for concentrating research energy and dollars on specialty crop research here in south Alberta because we do have a very specialized, very unique environment, unique crops, unique systems, and in my opinion, we need to be doing research that’s relevant to our crops and our production systems,” said Baarda. “That’s going to help us continue to be profitable and world class.”

By Heather Cameron, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 10, 2024 at 08:48

This item reprinted with permission from   The Taber Times   Taber, Alberta

Comments are Welcome - Use the 'Join the Discussion' above any replies, or 'TheRegional / Chat' below replies. Both links take you to the same place. You will be asked to become a registered user if you are not one already - Posts are moderated