Local farmers struggling from wet spring, overall effects of changing climate
After examining her soil-stained hands for a moment, Jessica Foote looks out at the fields of her farm, on which several acres of crops have already been lost this year. “We’re at the beck and call of mother nature,” she says, before wiping some of the soil from her hands. Foote, one of many area farmers struggling this year, is the owner of Lunar Rhythm Gardens has been working in agriculture since she was nine-years-old, under the guidance of her father.
Despite the high elevation of her Janetville property, flooding has already destroyed six acres of alfalfa, along with several of Foote’s lettuce crops.
“It’s the extremes that do it,” she says.
When it comes to battling against extreme weather, Foote is not alone. The City of Kawartha Lakes is home to approximately 1,265 farms, making up over 165,000 acres in crops, according to the 2016 census. With an extended and unpredictable rainy spring, farmers struggled to get their equipment, let alone seeds into the wet ground on time.
For many years, Emilee Skrabek’s table at the Lindsay Farmer’s Market has overflown with varieties of freshly harvested potatoes, vegetables and homemade preserves. This year, all that Skrabek can offer to market-goers are last year’s potatoes and the vegetables that she has been able to grow in her greenhouse, along with her usual collection of preserves.
Her family was not able to plant a single potato until June 30, which is considered extremely late for the crop, and they wondered if they would even get a chance to plant at all.
Skrabek says that an additional 85 acres of previously viable land will be planted with cover crops such as clover to help maintain the soil this year at their Deer Run Farm, but little will be harvested.
Foote, however, says that she considers herself grateful for what she has been able to sow. A close neighbour, she explains, has over 150 acres of land that will go unused this year. “I struck out lucky compared to that,” says Foote, who was able to till her fields earlier than most by using a team of work horses rather than heavy machinery.
For farmers who were able to get their crops into the soil, the battle has only begun.
“Although we have seen the return of the sun, and the extreme heat that has come with it, this does not mean that all is well in the farming world,” writes Kelly Maloney, agriculture development officer for the City of Kawartha Lakes.
Plants that have become accustomed to the wet season will not have had to develop the strong root systems required to survive the heat. Skrabek says that the combination of rain, humidity and heat can be deadly for crops as this increases the likelihood for fungal growth and disease such as blight.
Farmers who plant multiple crops in succession will have a more compounded season, meaning fewer but much longer days to harvest and plant. The team at Lunar Rhythm Gardens, for instance has already put in 12-hour work days in order to plant their first crops, and Foote says that she expects longer days moving forward.
Although this may be necessary in order to make ends meet, Maloney writes that there is concern for the health of farmers. “The emotional stress and effects on mental health cannot be overlooked for the farm community and the many supply, service, and other support businesses that exist in the agri-food sector,” she explains.
“The community around us needs to realize that we’re on a crunch for time now and we need some patience and consideration,” says Skrabek, whose family has been involved in the volunteer committee for the Lindsay Farmer’s Market for many years.
Skrabek and Foote both agree that consumers are generally unaware when it comes to understanding the process behind the food that they purchase.
“Food security is an illusion in the grocery store,” explains Foote, “because we have a global food system, we’re going to feel it [climate change] everywhere.”
The best thing that consumers can do, says Foote who has a network of recurring customers through her seasonal produce subscriptions, is to support local farmers.
Skrabek says that she struggled to keep quiet when she saw a customer at a grocery store purchase imported strawberries only a few days before the first local harvests were expected.
“Food in Canada is incredibly cheap — we have to compete with grocery stores importing from all over the world,” she explains.
The best way to get through the financial struggle that comes with challenging weather is “sourcing into a community who understand the local” food scene, says Skrabek, who works as a full-time teacher and continues to invest in her family’s farm. Skrabek is also looking into planting different crops that may be more adaptable to the changing climate.
There are a few ways to prepare for the unpredictable. Skrabek says that the initial delay in planting was “the perfect storm,” giving her family the opportunity to place a drainage system under the surface of their fields. This tubing system will allow water to filter through the fields and flow into a ditch where it can be collected for later use, rather than flooding the crops.
Foote has other concerns when it comes to water, “I’m waiting for the drought,” she laughs. Her farm has put in new irrigation systems to help their crops survive future dry spells.
Other local resources that may be available to farmers include crop insurance programs to protect against financial losses, as well as individual consultations with Crop Specialists, through the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.
“We will have to see how the middle and latter part of the growing season turns out to…know the impact of the weather from spring 2019. We need a late, warm fall for all of these crops to have time to grow and mature,” says Maloney.
Due to the rushed season, Foote says that she simply has not had the time to look into local resources, but that she would like to avoid relying on any assistance.
“I don’t want this land to be anything but a farm,” says Foote, fixing her gaze onto her field.