Growing crops in the southeast region of Alberta can be a struggle, but an ongoing study and resulting project could turn the tide for farmers.
In 2004, the MD of Acadia commissioned a study, supported by the provincial and federal governments, to examine large-scale farmland irrigation. Farmland irrigation would bring many benefits to the area, including but not limited to economic diversification and development, attraction of ancillary agriculture businesses and financial benefit to the province of Alberta. (https://www.mdacadia.ab.ca/about-us/irrigation-project/)
The county website indicates the study was updated in 2019 “to determine and reflect changes to the irrigation industry, and increased construction costs. The MD of Acadia’s irrigation project proposes to irrigate up to 27,000 acres of cultivated farmland from the Red Deer River at a capital cost of approximately $138 million.”
Gordon Specht is a third generation farmer who took over the family farm 25 years ago. Specht is also head of the Acadia Irrigation Society, a group is pushing for completion of the irrigation project.
“We’ve been in a severe drought the last couple of years, it’s been economically devastating in our area,” said Specht.
Specht says the irrigation project will help insulate the community from the effects of drought.
“When our community doesn’t have money, we don’t buy extra fertilizer and we stop spending, which hurts everybody. We’re losing population,” said Specht. “That’s the opposite of what’s happening in irrigation districts.”
Steven Heeg is also a farmer and a board member of the Acadia Irrigation Society.
“As a dryland farmer, there’s many challenges, but the biggest one is that you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” said Heeg. “The average rainfall is six to eight inches, but we haven’t seen that in quite a few years. There are pests like grasshoppers and other bugs that eat your crops off.”
According to Heeg, the municipal council continues to collaborate with the provincial government and Canadian Infrastructure Bank. He hopes they’ll utilize a new kind of irrigation, sub surface drip, instead of pivots.
“It gets buried in the ground, about 12 to 16 inches and it’s just a way more efficient way of irrigating your land,” said Heeg. “Pivots put the water on with a sprinkler, and on hot days you lose a lot to evaporation.”
Jason Wallsmith is the chief administrative officer of the MD of Acadia. He says the main reason the project hasn’t taken off is technical challenges.
“From the Red Deer River, we have to lift the water 400 feet,” said Wallsmith. “The power cost … is the main driver for why it hasn’t developed previously.”
While irrigation would support the farmers, Wallsmith says it has also been shown to increase sustainability within communities.
“If you look at communities like Bassano or Taber, you see relatively consistent population, compared to our area, where in the last 15 to 20 years we’ve actually seen a small decline in population,” explained Wallsmith.
Wallsmith sees the project as critical for continued growth in the community, and Specht agrees, saying he believes it will help keep young families around by creating jobs, ensuring schools stay open and increasing recreational opportunities. All three agree benefits will be far reaching.
“In these reports, about 84% of the economic benefit is not the farmer,” said Specht. “It is actually the region and the regions out farther, the government of Alberta and the government of Canada.”
In 2021 the MD of Acadia sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Alberta, Canadian Infrastructure Bank and the Special Areas Board to examine the potential for irrigation within the region.
More information about the project can be found at the MD of Acadia No. 34 website.
LAUREN THOMSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News