Farmer Focus Arable: Seth Pascoe gets to grips with irrigation

I recently joined 140 people for the annual Potato Growers of Alberta field trip to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, touring Southern Alberta’s irrigation infrastructure.

It’s hard to believe that the first project was started in the 1890s. Today the St Mary’s River Irrigation District is the largest in Canada, delivering water through a 1280-mile network of canals to 372,000 acres.

I was surprised that peak flow into the reservoirs isn’t usually until the second week of June when mountain snow-melt is at its height. Even now most mountains still have snow on their north sides.

It was reassuring that most reservoirs were still 90% full, meaning we should have ample water supplies to last the season.

The day out ended in true agricultural style with a traditional Alberta Aberdeen Angus BBQ and cold beers courtesy of kind chemical companies. But I still grimaced when reading the month’s fungicide bill the next day.

The trip gave me a new appreciation for irrigation. It’s so simple to turn on a pump, press a few buttons on the pivot computer and walk away. Two days later 160 acres of potatoes have had half an inch of water. It’s easy to forget what’s involved in getting that water from the mountains to the prairies.

Without irrigation Southern Alberta would be an unpopulated, unproductive and semi-arid region.

Driving to the Calgary Stampede I passed through dryland farming areas. Crops as far as the eye could see were brown and suffering moisture stress, evidence of this season’s severe drought.

Here I’ve just started irrigating potatoes again after a storm 10 days ago dumped 2in of rain in an hour.

One thing’s certain. It’s considerably easier pumping water through a pivot than trudging around in wellies digging channels to get excess water off the crop.

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