Long days, cool nights an advantage worth studying
Long days, cool nights an advantage worth studying
By Keri Sweetman
In Saskatchewan, they call it the “northern vigour.” In other areas, it’s simply known as the “northern advantage.”
But whatever name you give it, there’s no disputing this fact: growing crops in northern climates, like northern Alberta’s, has advantages that farmers have known about for years. Now they want to tell the rest of the world.
Economic groups representing farmers in northern Alberta are gathering scientific data they need to convince commodity buyers that many northern crops are superior because of the unusual growing season ─ long summer days and cool summer nights. Some of their studies will be presented in late May at a plant protein summit in Saskatoon, an important global event being held for the first time outside of Europe.
Northwestern Alberta gets as many as 19 hours of daily sunlight in the summer, with the sun rising at about 4:30 a.m. in late June and not setting until nearly midnight. That’s about 121 minutes longer than the growing day in southern Alberta, says Andrew O’Rourke, economic development officer for Mackenzie County.
La Crete, where O’Rourke is based, boasts the northernmost growing climate in Canada, if not the world. Moreover, half of all organic farmers in Alberta are located in Mackenzie County.
All kinds of crops are grown in the north, including field peas, hemp, canola, wheat, oats, barley and flax. As a result of the long growing days, their oats tend to be heavier and whiter, with larger kernels. The flax has more linolenic acid, an essential Omega 3 fatty acid. The field peas have high protein levels. Hemp grows extremely tall, an advantage when it’s used for fibre.
Dan Dibbelt, general manager of both the Peace Region Economic Development Alliance and the Regional Economic Development Initiative, adds that the yield-per-acre is also higher in the north due to the climate.
“If you are growing a quarter section of oats or wheat or whatever in northern Alberta, you will get more bales per acre than in other locations.”
And it’s not just the northern summers that provide an advantage. Winters are colder, killing off most of the pests that are the bane of all farmers. As a result, fewer pesticides are needed. “We had a good month of minus-30 weather this winter,” says Dibbelt. “While that may not be the most desirable weather for humans to live in, it’s also not very conducive to pests.”
Mackenzie County has two studies underway, one of which involves new scientific research to prove what farmers have been saying for years about the quality of northern crops. Using a grant from Alberta’s Community and Regional Economic Support program, the county has contracted the Mackenzie Applied Research Association (MARA) to study five crops – wheat, canola, barley, oats and field peas.
The one-year study, which began in March, will use a Near Infrared (NIR) machine to analyse and compare seeds grown in similar soil and fertilizer conditions in other parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan to seeds grown in the north. The analysis will look at protein, starch, oils, dry matter content, carbohydrates and test weight in the samples.
“We have been saying for many years that our crops have a better, different quality to them up here in the north because of our longer summer days,” says O’Rourke. “But we want to do the science behind this, to actually defend our claims. Then we can take the results and turn them into an economic developing tool, a marketing tool.”
Mackenzie County’s second study, funded by the federal Invest Canada Community Initiatives program, is reviewing previous research on protein in northern crops and developing ways to market those commodities, including a website in three languages. It will be presented at the Saskatoon protein ingredients summit May 29-31. Dibbelt will then also attend a partner summit a few days later in Calgary that is more focused on consumers and the retail market.
The idea behind both studies by Mackenzie County is to help northern farmers promote what they grow, especially to companies looking for specialized, higher-protein crops and other niche markets. Another goal would be to attract investment for a value-added, processing facility in the north, instead of continuing to ship out crops for processing elsewhere.
“Most people think of northern Alberta as just oil and gas and forestry,” says Dibbelt. “But in the Peace region, the majority of the land is agriculture and it is expanding.”
Farmers in that area are always looking for new crop possibilities, with much recent interest in hemp.
“Farmers are much more innovative than people give them credit for,” Dibbelt adds. “Of course, they have to rotate their crops and things like that, so they are always looking for something new. But they also have to look at the bottom line.”
With the trend toward plant-based foods and a strong market in the Middle East, it makes sense for northern farmers to explore growing peas, other pulses, and commodities such as hemp and flax, he says.
Keri Sweetman, a former section editor at the Edmonton Journal, is a freelance writer and editor.
Posted April 23, 2019