Column: Hot, dry weather adds new challenge to agriculture

As this intensely hot, dry summer drags on, the impact is starting to be felt sharply and in strange ways among farmers.

As this intensely hot, dry summer drags on, the impact is starting to be felt sharply and in strange ways among farmers.

Usually the summer sees a steady flow of produce as strawberries ripen, then raspberries and then blueberries allowing for staggered, efficient harvests. This year they all ripened around the same time resulting in some of the crops not picked. Without enough labour, enough machines working at the same time, enough people to process, package and market the fruit, produce was getting wasted.

Then there are crops dying in the fields from lack of irrigation. Many of those fields would normally have enough residue moisture in the soil to maintain healthy crop growth to which would be added average rainfall. But not this year. The soil is powder. Corn is withering, turning brown and dying. Some farmers are turning fields under.

For many farmers who don’t irrigate their hay fields, the first crop is in but the grass isn’t growing to allow another cut which means there will be a hay shortage this winter for horse owners.

As for city water supplies though, reserves still look good.

“In Chilliwack our aquifer is still good,” said Mayor Sharon Gaetz. “We are in Stage 3 drought and we are doing that to follow the provincial government. The aquifer is in good shape. But people need to get used to it.”

Meaning, with no rain forecast, folks need to adapt to a conservation-minded skill-set and use water resources wisely.

According to Metro Vancouver’s website, as of August 9, their reservoirs were only 60 per cent full. Three watersheds provide Vancouver’s water: Coquitlam (which supplies nearly half their water), Capilano, and Seymour reservoirs. In early July, the city started to release water from an additional alpine lake to supplement Capilano.

To the south, 99 per cent of Washington State is in a severe drought position and the Agriculture Department estimate farmers will lose 12 per cent of their annual $10 billion crop value this year. Temperatures are running seven degrees above normal, precipitation has been just 51 per cent of normal and 18 counties have been designated disaster areas.

B.C. farmers may need to do a reset. According to a report published in May by the British Columbia Agriculture & Food, Climate Action Initiative, by the 2020s (just five years plus), we could be seeing increases in average temperatures and more frequent drier, hotter summers and low river flows. The need to irrigate and oversee the complexities of water storage and management will dominate farm costs. There will be impacts on crop yields and quality and it may become necessary to diversify and plant more drought-resistant crops better suited to hotter, dryer climates. There will be consequences on livestock health and productivity and there could be challenges with seasonal stages such as interruptions in pollination.

Fraser Valley soils are some of the most fertile in Canada and some 63,838 hectares are farmed in the FVRD. There is a wide variety of soil types, the majority being class three or better.

The annual precipitation in the FVRD is approximately 1,575 mm. But according to Roger Pannett, volunteer weather observer for Environment Canada, this year in the Chilliwack region our precipitation from January 1 to July 31 has only been 654.2 mm compared to the 30-year average for the same period of 983 mm, about 66 per cent of normal. And for farmers, water demands basically double in dry times.

As badly as it’s needed, there is no endgame in sight for this drought. Environment Canada’s probability seasonal forecast shows 100 per cent above normal temperature and 50 per cent below normal rainfall through September/October for the south coast.