Glacier FarmMedia COVID-19 & the Farm

Way up north, there’s an unusual sight — soybeans

Peace Country growers are testing new early-maturing varieties of a crop associated with the American Midwest

This is not what you usually see in the Peace — a crop of soybeans. Canterra Seeds rep Jesse Meyer took (and tweeted) this photo of a soybean field near La Crete in early July. Photo: Jesse Meyer

La Crete is nearly 3,000 kilometres north of the continent’s soybean heartland, but that hasn’t stopped some farmers in the area from giving the crop a whirl.

“Our most farthest north-grown soybeans… looking great in La Crete,” Canterra Seeds rep Jesse Meyer tweeted earlier this month when posting a picture of soybeans growing in the area.

So far, growers are only dipping part of a toe in the water. There are about 10 to 15 area farmers trying one of two Canterra varieties — the biggest sowing was just 80 acres, with most closer to 10 acres, said Meyer, the company’s territory manager in Peace Country.

“There’s nothing wide-scale right now,” he said. “People are just trying them throughout the region.”

Soybeans are rarely seen in Alberta but are a common sight on the eastern side of the Prairies. Last year, Manitoba and Saskatchewan farmers planted a staggering three million acres of the crop, according to StatsCan.

While that number fell this year to 2.3 million acres (likely because of dry conditions), the federal agency had, for the first time, an entry for Alberta soybeans — albeit a mere 18,300 acres in the entire province.

It comes just as prices have tanked — they’re half of the 2012 peak and hitting 10-year lows in the face of Chinese tariffs recently imposed in the escalating trade war between that country and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

But prices aren’t a factor when you’re testing out a new crop on a small scale — there are other reasons why they’re attractive, said Meyer.

“We’ve relied a lot on canola and people are looking for a good-value crop to rotate into their rotation that would fit well in there,” he said. “People are looking for another option because of diseases like clubroot. Soybeans could fit into that.”

The crop fixes its own nitrogen and is attractive as a weed management tool in rotations (although it also requires significantly more water than wheat and canola, and doesn’t like saline soil).

Earlier-maturing varieties of soybeans have been developed in recent years, with Canterra offering two — 00095 and 00078. The latter is the company’s earliest variety and is being grown in Alberta and Saskatchewan, said Darren Nykoliation, Canterra’s business development manager for corn and soybeans.

“They keep getting earlier and earlier,” said Meyer. “It’s pretty cutting edge that we’re trying it up here and looking at a different crop option.”

Soybeans have been grown at Fort Saskatchewan, and there’s seed production in northern Saskatchewan.

“There are people looking at them in many regions of Western Canada,” said Meyer.

“Rotational value is really what’s driving this,” added Nykoliation. “Holdbacks are marketability and access to crush or marketplace.”

The basis would have to be pretty wide to overcome the freight costs of getting soybeans to a processing plant, he added.

Despite its huge acreage, Manitoba is still trying to attract a soybean-crushing plant and sends its crop south of the border for processing. But the province is also an example of what’s possible. Its first year of significant soybean production was 2000, when farmers there also planted just over 18,000 acres. Acreage quickly jumped but stayed in the 100,000- to 300,000-acre range until 2009 when it started growing by leaps and bounds. Even though acreage dropped 13 per cent this year, it’s still nearly 1.9 million acres in Manitoba.

Meanwhile, a small number of Alberta growers have been periodically trying new varieties to see how they work here.

“Guys who have tried it have had some successes and some failures, and then they’ve shied away from it for a little while,” said Nykoliation.

There hasn’t been the possibility of having a consistently profitable crop that offers a return on a regular basis, but that’s starting to change, he said.

“We’re now starting to see the maturities match the zones better.”

— With staff files

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