When Eleanor Renaud’s father passed away five years ago, at the age of 88, there was no real question about what would happen to the family farm.
“I have six sisters who took off the second they could get off the farm," says Renaud, who is now 56. "I’m the only one who kept coming back. I loved it. My father tested me my entire life to see if there wasn’t something else I wanted to be doing”
Even with this summer's extreme heat and drought, and even with climatologists promising more extreme weather in years to come, Renaud has no plans to earn her living from anything other than the crops and cattle that populate her 1,000 acres in Leeds County in eastern Ontario.
“This farm has been in our family since the 1800s,” she says. “I don’t know what else I would do.”
Though some areas were worse off than others, all of Ontario’s farmers weathered a hot, dry summer this year.
“Spring rainfall was below normal throughout Ontario with most significant deficits in eastern regions of the province,” says Patrick Cherneski, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “As the summer progressed, these deficits worsened. This growing season had more than 120 millimetres less rainfall than what would normally be expected — that means it was drier than nine out of 10 seasons.”
Renaud readily acknowledges this was an extreme year, but she resists framing her challenges in the context of climate change. Each year she works to feed her cattle, fulfill her commercial contracts and earn a living. She says she always deals with what the weather throws at her in the same way:
“I panic. I always do.”
Theoretically, farmers like Renaud might not need to consider alternatives. Many climate models suggest Ontario farmers might actually benefit from climate change in the form of warmer temperatures, a longer growing season and a northern expansion of the province’s farmable region. But it’s not that simple.
“Generally speaking, Ontario can expect more variability and extreme weather, meaning more wet years and more dry years,” Cherneski says.
For Renaud, that means an already unpredictable way of life becomes that much more unpredictable.
“The year started out great," she says of the most recent growing season. "I got the crops in really fast, even on low ground. And then it never rained. And then it still never rained. The low-ground crops germinated. The high ground did not. The crops have been all over the map this summer.”
Some of Renaud's crops made it through the drought, but she’s worried that she won’t be able to harvest them before the winter freeze because there has been too much autumn rain.
“Now we need some dry weather,” she says. “Everybody’s hollering. Everybody wants their beans done yesterday. But if you don’t own your own combine, which is not a possibility for me, you’re at the mercy of when the guy gets there.”
Gilles Quesnel, a former agronomist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, now works as an agricultural consultant and researcher in eastern Ontario. He says that while climate change brings a mixed bag of potential benefits and problems to Ontario, most farmers already view nature as a fickle, unpredictable force and adjust accordingly.
“Farmers work in the elements. They adapt an awful lot,” he says. “In the past 15 years, many have improved drainage, ditches and other infrastructure to get the water out quickly. When you drain the soil, it warms up much faster. With warmer soil, they’re able to plant as much as seven or 10 days earlier.”
Drainage, irrigation, sowing and harvesting technologies, Quesnel says, extend the growing season and affect farms’ viability more quickly and dramatically than the shifts predicted by climate change models. Of course, technology varies greatly from farm to farm, as do soil quality, crops, farming methods and, indeed, weather patterns.
Every farm has a different story.
“Heat is good,” says Ben Sosnicki, who runs a 60-acre organic vegetable farm near Waterford. “I worry about a cold, wet season much more than a hot, dry one. I can always add water, but I can’t take it away.”
Ben and his wife Jessie use about $3,000 worth of pumps, hoses and filters to irrigate their key crops, drawing water from a spring-fed stream running along their property line. “It’s hard to imagine being out of water," Ben says. And hard to imagine it being so hot we can’t grow."
Ben and Jessie both grew up on farms in the region. This summer's drought was extreme, they say, but they managed.
“We don’t try to control everything,” says Jessie. “We know we’re going to have successes and failures. Root crops suffer in a hot, dry year so we didn’t do very well with carrots and beets this year. But tomatoes and peppers were exceptionally bumper. They love the heat.”
The outlook is not so rosy an hour’s drive away at Bry Anne Farms near Fonthill. Here, Bryan and Anne Durst maintain 300 acres of vegetable rows, cornfields and pick-your-own berry patches. Every October, the Dursts run their “Great Pumpkin Patch” event, during which families can spend a day on the farm, getting a glimpse of harvest time.
This year, recent rains had made the ground muddy, but signs of drought were still visible: Typically, the Dursts’ carve a corn maze out of lush green stalks towering 10 or 12 feet high. This year, an adult could easily peer over the brown, stubby plants.
“I had to walk away from a lot of crops,” Bryan says.
Quesnel says that at the height of this year’s drought many farmers were worried the year would be a disaster, but ended up escaping the worst.
“What happened?” he said. “Conditions were dry in the spring. Farmers were able to plant early. Dry conditions meant less soil compaction. Roots were able to penetrate very deeply. Many places got a rain in mid-July, right when the tassels were about to come out on the corn. There was enough moisture at the right time for pollination. Soybeans benefited as well.”
Farmers can't, and don’t, count on that kind of luck. Tiny variables can have unpredictable consequences — for good and ill. Climate change may alter some of the variables, but it cannot alter the fundamental variability farmers already face.
“The idea that climate change is going to make things better is not realistic,” says Don McCabe. McCabe runs a farm in Lambton County. He is also the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. “It might provide a longer growing season, but even minor changes in humidity could introduce a new disease or pest to a system. That brings new challenges that you didn’t have a few moments ago.”
He also points out that yields can vary widely on farms just a few kilometres apart. Every year, McCabe says, farmers gamble their livelihoods on the hope that their annual crops will thrive.
“Mortgage payments, groceries — everything depends on the weather," says Eleanor Renaud. If you don’t get any rain, you don’t get a crop. Too much rain and it drowns the crop.”
Science, technology and labour can mitigate many of the risks of climate change, but farmers are still often at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
“In what we do there’s only one rule,” McCabe says. “Mother Nature always wins.”
Journalist and author Patchen Barss has written, edited and produced stories about science, research and culture for more than 20 years.
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