Canola, soybeans and potatoes left in fields after weather and trade war deliver ‘brutal’ year for farming



Naomi Powell | Financial Post

Canadian canola, soybean and potato crops took some of the toughest hits in a “brutal year” for farming as weather menaced harvests and trade issues shrank demand and pricing.

Heavy rain and colder temperatures in the East, overly dry conditions in the West and an early snowfall in the Prairies slowed the growing season, leaving record amounts of potatoes unharvested in fields and pushing canola and soybean production to their lowest levels in years.

Meantime, global trade wars and diplomatic frictions between Canada and China took a toll on both exports and pricing of canola and soybeans, leaving canola farmers with a record oversupply of the oilseed.

“It’s been a very challenging year no doubt and there’s stress in the industry,” said J.P. Gervais, chief economist for Farm Credit Canada, a major lender to the farming sector. “We’re seeing the early impact of really difficult weather coast to coast and then there were market access issues. Farmers have had lower production and exports and in most cases prices that were flat or down with little positive movement elsewhere to make up for it.”

Canola production fell 8.3 per cent to 18.6 million tonnes in 2019, its lowest level since 2015, Statistics Canada reported Friday. Cold temperatures and snow arrived before the crop was ready, leaving farmers to harvest just 20.6 million acres, an 8.8 per cent decline.

“It’s at the low end of our expectations but not a shocker given how brutal the harvest was this year,” said Keith Ferley, a commodities futures adviser at RBC Dominion Securities in Winnipeg. “There just wasn’t enough time to get the crop off. We really needed a couple of more weeks.”

It was a similar story for soybean production, which plunged 18.5 per cent to 6 million tonnes as the harvested area fell 10.6 per cent to 5.6 million acres.

Meanwhile, poor harvest conditions left 20,296 acres of Canadian potatoes abandoned in fields, sparking concerns of a supply shortage for French fry processors. In Manitoba alone 13,000 acres or 20 per cent of the province’s total potato acreage were left unharvested.

The challenging conditions mean processors in Manitoba will likely have to import potatoes, but with farmers in major potato-producing states like North Dakota and Idaho facing similar weather challenges, the question is from where. After cold, wet conditions stunted growth or destroyed crops altogether, American farmers are expected to turn in a harvest of just 22.4 million tonnes of potatoes, a 6.1 per cent decline since last year and the lowest yield since 2010.

Idaho alone produces more potatoes than all of Canada, said Keith MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada.

“It’s very unusual for such a large player to be hit like this,” MacIsaac said. Still, he played down talk of a “crisis” in potato supplies. “What will happen in this situation is that someone who grew potatoes for another purpose will change their use. Companies may have to buy potatoes at a greater price but they’ll find them.”

Cavendish Farms, which operates processing plants in Prince Edward Island, North Dakota and Alberta, expected no interruption in its operations due to the difficult harvest. McCain Foods was also confident it would meet customer demand. And the Idaho-based J.R. Simplot company, slated to open an expanded Manitoba plant in the new year, said the lines would be up and running on schedule.

“Certainly this year’s cold spell impacted harvest, particularly in the more northern growing regions. But we work with growers all over Canada and the U.S. and weather has the potential to impact things any year,” Josh Jordan, a spokesperson for Simplot, said in an email. “This year we’ll have to ship potatoes to our Manitoba facility from other areas that were not impacted as much.”

For both soybean and canola producers, the nasty weather struck at a particularly difficult time, when China — the largest importer of both commodities — has all but cut off purchases. In March, Beijing stripped the export permits from two major Canadian grain suppliers, citing pest concerns. Soon after, Chinese buyers halted all purchases of the signature Canadian crop. That left canola producers sitting on a record 4 million tonnes of unsold canola which it will now carry over into the next year.

And in December, Chinese purchases of Canadian soybeans, which surged after Beijing cut purchases of U.S. beans, all but fell off a cliff.

Indeed, though China purchased 3 million tonnes of Canadian soybeans in 2018, this year it is expected to buy just 50,000 tonnes. The cuts in Chinese imports of Canadian oilseed are widely viewed as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Farmers have been attempting to develop new customers for soybeans and canola, but have struggled to offset the loss of the massive Chinese market.

As for crops still sitting in the fields, their fate will ultimately depend on what kind of winter they are forced to endure.

“It’s not good for anything to be left out over the winter,” said Ron Davidson, executive director of Soy Canada. “If the snow is heavy and pushes (soybeans) onto the ground you’ve lost them. So we’ll have to wait and see.”


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