BC farmer says heat and drought show agriculture sector needs support

Farmers’ optimism is being tested by the ravages of climate change for Dhaliwals and farmers across Canada as they look to provincial and federal governments for help.

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When an unprecedented heat wave ‘cooked’ the cherries growing on Oliver’s family farm, Pravin Dhaliwal tried to see beyond the financial loss to the passion that drove him to follow in the footsteps of his father and his grandfather.

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“Seeing these trees go from seed to budding, from leaves to fruit and eating that fruit is a rush, and that’s why I’m into farming too,” he said.

But scorching temperatures that recently hit a record 41.5C in the Okanagan region and even higher elsewhere in British Columbia have caused more than 54,000 kilograms of cherries at the Dhaliwal farm to shrivel. on trees that “appeared to have been set on fire”.

Much of the apple crop was also destroyed, with 40% of them being scorched by the sun.

“It’s devastating,” said Dhaliwal, 23, who decided to continue with the family’s 16-hectare farm two years ago after completing a business degree at the University of British Columbia.

Now he’s looking to the future based on the lessons he’s learned on the farm – focusing on better seasons ahead while trying to stay competitive with growers shipping their produce north from California. and Mexico.

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However, that optimism is being tested by the ravages of climate change for Dhaliwals and farmers across Canada as they look to provincial and federal governments for help.

Dhaliwal’s family filed an insurance claim with the BC government, but he said the income won’t even be enough to cover the expenses, so the farmers need more support.

“I would consider this heat wave a disaster. It is not a few farmers who are affected by the heat wave, it has affected everyone. There is drought in Alberta, in Saskatchewan,” he said.

The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture said growers can purchase insurance to cover crop yield with a 20% deductible under a joint program with the federal government for fruit loss and of some weather-damaged plants.

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Brent Preston, founding member of Farmers for Climate Solutions, said the future of agriculture in Canada will require government support for producers trying to navigate large swings in climate.

“We’re going to be in a lot of trouble if we don’t try to insulate ourselves from these effects,” Preston said from his farm near Creemore, Ont., about a 90-minute drive north of Toronto, where he mainly farmed. chopped salads.

Farmers need funding to implement practices specific to various regions of the country to help them become more resilient to extreme weather, he said, adding that the cost of inaction will add up for governments and those frustrated with increasingly difficult livelihoods.

More farmers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by growing cover crops when they are not growing the ones they sell in order to build organic matter in the soil and make it healthier, so that less fertilizer is needed, he said.

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“When you have an extreme rain event, that moisture stays in the ground instead of running off and eroding the field. And when you have a drought, that moisture is available to support the crops in your field.

The practice could lead to farmers risking money and time to figure out how to do it right, sometimes without professional help they can’t afford, Preston said.

“The federal government, in the last federal budget, included a fairly modest amount of money to subsidize farmers to plant cover crops. And it’s a very, very good start,” he said of his group’s lobbying efforts. “But I think these types of weather crises that we’re seeing show that we’re really going to have to step this up.”

Subsidies for growing cover crops could cover the cost of seeds and equipment for about three to five seasons until the practice is established and farmers begin to reap the benefits, he said. he declares.

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In Ontario, for example, farmers have a strong incentive to make more money by growing only corn one year and soybeans the next, Preston said. But a short rotation of just two crops could lead to increased use of nitrogen fertilizer, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions because it can turn into nitrous oxide and contribute to climate change, he added.

Instead, farmers need government policies to help them switch to planting wheat after a year of corn and soybeans and then harvesting another crop later in the season during the winter, he said. he declares.

“We’re not talking about huge disruptions to the agricultural system or the way people farm. It’s about tweaking the systems and adding things to make them more sustainable in the long run.

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Importing water-hungry crops like fruits and vegetables from drought-ravaged California isn’t a reliable option overall and encouraging consumers to buy local won’t go far, he said.

“Across all sectors in Canada, government is playing a role in supporting the transition to a green economy. And this must also happen in agriculture. We don’t ask for anything different than what we see in shipping or manufacturing or anything else.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in a statement that it is “working closely with the Province of British Columbia as well as other provinces affected by extreme weather to monitor and respond to the evolving situation. of drought”.

Hannah Wittman, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, said expected higher temperatures will mean farmers will have to switch to less water-dependent crops, but that could be a proposition. expensive.

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Carrot varieties that can tolerate drier and warmer conditions are being studied at the university and would require farmers to simply plant different seeds, unlike perennial crops such as berries, grapes or apples, which take four five years to reach full production, Wittman mentioned.

“It’s not something farmers can do lightly. They have to be pretty sure that if they replant, they have to choose varieties that are suitable for the climate ahead, not the climate we had before.

Many smallholder farming families who diversify and rotate their crops lack sustainable irrigation systems and infrastructure to harvest and store their produce or market it, Wittman said.

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Lana T. Arthur