It was a wet summer for Westlock farmer John Guelly.

One day in August 2013, on a routine inspection of his field, he got a sinking feeling. Some of his crop had drowned in puddles in the soil. 

He checked further into the field and noticed even more of his crops had died.

“I, for whatever reason, just started pulling plants and as I pulled I found what I thought was clubroot,” Guelly said.

The plants hadn’t died from water but from a disease Guelly had never seen before on his farm about 90 kilometres north of Edmonton.

Alberta’s canola industry brings roughly $26 billion dollars into Canada annually. PHOTO:CLICKFLASHPHOTOS/ NICKI VARKEVISSER.

He took some pictures and within a couple of days, he had it confirmed. It was clubroot, a soil-borne disease that stops the plants from properly absorbing water and nutrients. 

“Very somber moment, a real punch in the gut,” he said.

Guelly’s story is one that many farmers are all too familiar with. Since its appearance in Alberta, clubroot has spread exponentially over the years. It now infects farms in 42 municipalities, and is starting to bleed into neighbouring farming provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The Alberta government last updated the provincial plan to clean up the disease seven years ago despite top research being produced in Edmonton. They also have not found a way to consistently help farmers and eradicate the destructive disease.

Sounding the alarm

After his run-in with clubroot, Guelly started warning other farmers about how their livelihoods could be in danger from the disease. As he became more outspoken on the issue, he earned the unofficial title of Mr. Clubroot.

“It takes a while to come around to accepting that you’ve got it and not blaming anyone else.” Guelly said. 

“I felt the need to let other farmers know about it, so that maybe they didn’t have to go through as much pain on it as I did.”

Stephen Strelkov, an agriculture professor at the University of Alberta, said clubroot originated in the Mediterranean region and was brought to North America with the settlers.   

“It was known historically through the 19th and early 20th Century as a problem in Eastern Canada,” he said.

For most of the disease’s history, it infected vegetables such as cabbage and mustard but in 2003, clubroot jumped species to canola, a far more lucrative crop where it became a more serious issue for Albertans. 

Cash crop

Alberta’s canola industry brings roughly $26 billion dollars into Canada annually. 

In the past decade the canola industry has lost an estimated $500 million in profits due to clubroot, said Edel Pérez-López, a plant pathologist from Laval University in Quebec.

Roughly 380 cases were found in Alberta in 2020, compared with Saskatchewan’s 74 and Manitoba’s 44 reported cases.

Clubroot causes the formation of tumor-like growths, called galls or clubs, on the root structures of the plants that impede its ability to take in water and nutrients. PHOTO: FLICKR/LESLIE L.

“The example in Alberta shows that it can spread really fast,” Pérez-López said.

Alberta does have a plan to deal with the problem called the Alberta clubroot management plan, which lays out how to test for and manage an infected field.

But the plan was last updated in 2014.

The lack of an updated plan from the Alberta Agriculture Ministry drew Strelkov and the University of Alberta to begin field research on a new integrated management strategy for clubroot.

The goal, Strelkov said, is to ensure that any infected field is treated equally regardless of the farmer’s finances, or any other factors, and that the farmers have the latest research and methods to use.

“There’s no single magic bullet,” Strelkov said. “If we rely on a single strategy, it may not be effective or it could be effective, but then not sustainable.”

Time to update the plan?

When the Calgary Journal asked whether the government planned to update its plan with more modern information, Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen declined the interview.

His ministry also promised a statement about clubroot but did not send it by the deadline.

According to Aaron Van Beers, an agricultural manager with Leduc County, the legislation leaves the enforcement of clubroot management to the municipality, which means the disease is dealt with differently across the province.

“It’s called enabling legislation. They don’t stipulate exactly what you have to do,” Van Beers said, “That freedom, it’s a double-edged sword, because it can allow you to do whatever you want, but some municipalities may not be able to do what’s needed.” 

Van Beers also explained how Leduc County routinely inspects every farm in the area but others only do random sampling or focus primarily on clubroot awareness.

Once a farmer finds evidence of clubroot on their field, one of the first steps to mitigate the disease’s effects is to implement a longer crop rotation. But canola is an incredibly lucrative crop and growers will lose income from growing other crops in its stead.

“[Canola] is the one that usually has the best return, so we used to see a lot of canola being grown in tight rotations,” Van Beers said. “Once [clubroot] is there, every time you grow up on it, it’s going to get worse.” 

There is also a strong incentive to handle clubroot from the agencies that supply farmers with insurance.

“Crop insurance is designed, in a way, to not support bad management practices” said Emmet Hanrahan, vice president of product innovation at Agriculture Financial Services Corporation.

If the insurance agency finds the crop loss in a field to be the fault of the operator for not adhering to proper regulations then the farmer risks not receiving a payout. 

Longlasting effects

It is not just clubroot’s high mortality rate that makes it so dangerous. The disease leaves spores in the soil that can live for up to 20 years in the soil.

This longevity creates what Van Beers calls a “new clubroot normal” for farmers which results in them having to more frequently clean equipment and switch to clubroot-resistant canola seeds.

While these new practices come at a cost, Guelly said, “it certainly made life easier.” 

The shorter crop rotation and smaller fields meant the Westlock farmer was able to save time in his day-to-day operations even if he did take an income hit. 

“So you could get away with not doing anything about it for a couple of years, but eventually it’s going to catch up to you.” 

Stephen Strelkov, agriculture professor at the University of Alberta

“It’s not a death sentence for the land or for the farmer. It’s stuff that can be worked through,” he said.

According to Strelkov, if clubroot is left in an unmitigated state, its potential impact can be very severe.

“Eventually you could have almost a collapse in that field, you may suffer a total loss that year,” said Streklov.

“So you could get away with not doing anything about it for a couple of years, but eventually it’s going to catch up to you.” 

Despite the measures in place, clubroot is still spreading, partially due to new variants of the disease showing up.

As of March 16, Alberta has 36 strains of clubroot, more than half of which can overcome clubroot-resistant canola, according to a recent article from the University of Alberta. 

“None by themselves is a magic bullet,” Strelkov said. “But if we put the current strategies together, we can hope to have a fairly good program that makes it just become another issue we have to deal with.”