Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) President Todd Lewis is all for the massive irrigation project announced by the Saskatchewan Party government on July 2.
Lewis said on that day, “It's very welcome. Lake Diefenbaker has been chronically underdeveloped, as a major infrastructure project that began in the 50s, sitting there. A lot of the water just flows through or evaporates. It's really important for that water to create economic activity.”
He noted field crops, greenhouses and secondary processing are all potential benefits.
The project announced by the Saskatchewan Party government would more than double the irrigated acreage in Saskatchewan, adding 500,000 acres. If fully built out, Phase 1 and 2 would provide irrigation for much of the land between Gardiner Dam and the south bend in the North Saskatchewan River, near Borden. Fundamentally, most of the land west and southwest of Saskatoon would have the potential for irrigation, stretching almost to Sonningdale and past Zealandia.
Similarly, Phase 3 would encompass most of the land south of the Qu’Appelle River from Lake Diefenbaker to north of Moose Jaw.
For a substantial portion of central Saskatchewan, where the land is appropriate, the term “dryland farming” could become history.
In making the announcement, Premier Scott Moe and Legislative Secretary Lyle Stewart (a former agriculture minister) emphasised the intention is to grow vegetables and corn. Carrots, beets, cabbage, cucumbers and potatoes were all listed.
Lewis concurred, saying, “I think it's a high value crops. You know, so certainly on the side of greenhouse production, we have a wonderful natural gas resource here in the province. There's lots of it and (it can) provide heating for greenhouses in the wintertime and so on. There's lots of sunlight hours as well. I
think we're well positioned now that there's a water source to ease more development of greenhouses and certainly field production, development of a vegetable industry as well.
“We’re certainly seeing, with COVID, how the security side of things and how we rely on foreign sources of vegetables from places like California,” Lewis said, adding there are water availability issues in California.
He said, “If you look at some of the developments, the history of irrigated areas and so on, if you look at southern Alberta … and the industry that that's attracted be it potato processing or, even things like seed, canola and so on that has grown in that area. This will make a large part of Saskatchewan able to grow at high value crops.”
He added there will be opportunities for industrial development and potash mining, too.
Moe announced the project would be $4 billion over 10 years, with the intention of growing the economy by $40 to $80 billion in gross domestic product over the next 50 years.
But that $4 billion doesn’t include the investments farmers will have to make into pivots and related equipment, which can cost $90,000 to $150,000 for a quarter section, according to New Way Irrigation in Outlook. Nor does it include investments necessary for specialty handling equipment for crops like vegetables.
He didn’t see a lot of downsides. Indeed, irrigation takes away one of the largest risks in farming – not getting enough rain for your crops.
Asked what sort of uptake there might be from farmers, Lewis responded, “People are making very good money with irrigated farming. If that water’s available and the business lines up, farmers will invest the money.”
“It's a great investment for the province and $4 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but I think we'll see the rewards for many times over,” he said.
Lewis personally farms south of Regina, at Gray, so he won’t have the opportunity to tie into this project. But given the chance, would he?
“Absolutely. I think it's a great opportunity. You look at the value, increased land value when the opportunities are out, you know, the Lethbridge area, for instance, and the long term build it does for these communities. It's going to be fantastic. It really is a great opportunity. And as I say, this is long overdue.
“You know, more water evaporates from Lake Diefenbaker than is actually used for economic opportunity. It's great they're doing it and I really think we're going to see a long-term reward to the province,” Lewis concluded.