Drought among many concerns as producers gather for Sask Wheat Coffee Shop Talk in Prince Albert

Farmers and experts hold a discussion at the Sask Wheat Development Commission (SWDC) Coffee Shop Talk in Prince Albert on Feb. 1. -- Sask Wheat Development Commission photo.

Soil nutrient management, weed control, and marketing were among the topics up for discussion at the Sask Wheat Development Commission (SWDC) Coffee Shop Talk held at the Prince Albert Wildlife Federation building on Feb. 1, but drought was the biggest concern.

SWDC elected director Glenn Tait said wheat producers have a variety of concerns heading into another growing year, but droughts in 2023 and a lack of snowfall over the winter show the urgency in developing new types of drought-resistant wheat.

“We always want to grow more wheat on less moisture,” Tait said in an interview the day after the talk. “It’s been a concern for years, but as climate change becomes more and more at the top of the news, more people are worried about it, and it’s certainly adding to the urgency of the new varieties being developed to handle that kind of drought stress.

“We’re always talking about it, especially now with no snow and the warm summers we’ve had, the recent drought, yeah, it’s a really important topic.”

Tait farms northwest of North Battleford, but was in Prince Albert on Feb. 1 for the Coffee Shop Talk. He said farmers are looking at lower wheat yields this upcoming summer if conditions don’t improve.

“Weather always concerns farmers, and of course it concerns the wheat commission too,” he said. “It’s supposed to snow here on Sunday (Feb. 4), so we’re hoping for a little bit of moisture, but I just drove across most of the province the day before yesterday (Jan. 31), and it is dry, certainly, out there. We’re all worried about it.”

2023 was a difficult year for producers, regardless of what crop they grew. The provincial government saw a surge in crop insurance claims due to drought, with Finance Minister Donna Harpauer forecasting a $853 million increase in agriculture expenses primarily due to those claims. 

In November, the Water Security Agency (WSA) reported that Saskatchewan would see reduced runoff in the spring due to moderate to extreme drought conditions in the fall of 2023. The WSA also reported in November that Saskatchewan needed significant snowfall to prevent extremely dry conditions, especially in the southwest.

Tait said breeding new varieties of drought-tolerant wheat has always been a priority for the SWDC, but drought conditions have intensified those concerns. However, he’s also encouraged by the progress researchers have made in helping farmers grow more wheat with less moisture.

“Over time we have been really increasing the yield of wheat,” he said. “It’s phenomenal to think about even 30 years ago, what the yields are that we’re getting now compared to what we had then, it’s fantastic.”

The Prince Albert Coffee Shop Talk was the second SWDC talk of 2024. The first was held in Wilkie in January. A third talk scheduled for St. Brieux was cancelled.

The Prince Albert talk was the first one Tait could attend in person. He said the SWDC is happy with the results so far.

“We’ve got good feedback on most of our coffee shop talks. People really enjoyed them and really like the one-on-one conversations with the technical experts in the field of agriculture,” he explained.

“A coffee shop talk like this, it’s not your usual ‘stand at the front of the room and talk to a bunch of farmers’ format. It’s very personal. You’re talking to three or four people at a time and you switch from table to table—the experts do anyway—and you get to talk to several different people about exactly what you want to talk about, and the interaction is great. It’s wonderful. There’s a lot of data shared and a lot of personal experience.”