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Facing Up To Climate Change

Avery Simundsson of Arborg was first runner-up in the senior division of the Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture held at the recent Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Simundsson, 21, is an engineering student at the University of Manitoba. The following is an excerpt from her speech on the topic of “What is the biggest challenge in agriculture today?”

Imagine yourself driving down the highway on a sunny afternoon, rice paddies on either side of the road. Labourers stand in ankle-deep water, toiling endlessly under the summer heat. They look up as you go by, waving with smiles on their faces. Up ahead, a sign reads “15 km to. . . Saskatchewan?”

Weather has always been one of the most, shall we say, perplexing aspects of agriculture. We can breed seed for optimum yield, we can control weeds with herbicides. But far as we have progressed in science, we still fall short when it comes to controlling the weather, or in that case, even predicting it more than a day in advance. By the end of this summer in Manitoba, the weather channel stayed safe with the general forecast of “partly cloudy with a 60 per cent chance of rain.”

Farmers spend their lives watching prayers of rain blowing away with the dust or waiting anxiously as dark clouds hang over already muddy fields. What is it about today’s weather that makes it so much more of a challenge than yesteryear?

Well, if we take a look at recent weather-related head-l ines, 2010 has been the pinnacle of several years of abnormal weather, breaking records around the globe. Floods in Pakistan destroyed thousands of villages and displaced millions of inhabitants. Extreme heat in Moscow resulted in a death toll of 700 people per day. Here at home in Canada, out-of-control forest fires in Quebec caused a record number of calls for Montreal’s 911 operators, exceeding those of the 1998 ice storm. In early July, Montreal also saw what Environment Canada is calling the most intense heat wave on record.

As much as we would like to believe this is a year of freak weather, evidence shows that this year may be an example of what could become the norm. “What we’ve seen this summer,” says Pierre Gosselin, of the Quebec Public Health Institute, “is an example of what we will see more and more.”

So what does this have to do with agriculture? Everything.

What happens when you introduce a new climate to an envi ronment that functions based on something completely different? Saskatchewan, which instead

of its regular growing season, experienced a full-out monsoon of a summer. Crops that were planted with the expectation of the usual 33 mm per month of rainfall drowned in the wettest season on record. Some areas received well over 200 per cent of the average spring precipitation.

Are their crops that would survive this kind of excess moisture? Of course. Are any of them currently grown in Saskatchewan? Not by producers looking to turn a profit. Why? Because according to the usual growing season in Saskatchewan, this would be a rather risky business venture.

However, the past few years raise the question: what is the usual growing season of Saskatchewan?

The October issue of this year’sCanadian Geographic outlines the effects of climate change with an example near and dear to our hearts: the maple syrup industry.

Canada produces about 85

per cent of the world’s maple syrup, an export valued at over $354 million in 2009. But impacts of a changing climate are causing concerns about the future of the industry in Canada. Trees are usually tapped in late March, but in 2010, some were tapping as early as January. And even with the use of increasingly sophisticated equipment, sap production has actually declined in the past five years by an average of 29 per cent. The climate maples prefer for producing sap is moving farther and farther north, but the fertile sandy loam that they grow in is not, shrinking the area sap can be produced.

Tim Perkins, director of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Syrup Research Center forecasts that commercial sap production in the United States, second-largest sap producer next to Canada, may eventually be completely non-existent. How much longer before that forecast moves north of the border?

Weather and climate are core factors of crop production. Climate differs across the world, creating growing seasons that vary in terms of heat, moisture, and length. All of these things determine what crops will be planted in the area, how they will be harvested, and the length of time from seeding to harvest among a multitude of other things.

In order to survive in the shifting climates, entire operations will have to be transformed. Crops that have been grown for years will no longer be viable in certain areas. Harvest methods and equipment may have to be altered, or completely overhauled to remain sustainable. Years of acquired information and experience may become obsolete as an entire new knowledge base is needed.

As individual producers, we are not equipped to deal with change on this level. Take the flooding that occurred across the Canadian Prairies this past spring. A combined effort of the provincial and federal governments created the 2010 excess moisture program designed to help producers compensate for unseeded land due to flooding. The result? A payout of $450 million between Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This in addition to the $1.4 billion already paid out through crop insurance and other risk management programs.

In years like this, it’s programs like these that help producers endure. But these programs are designed as safety nets, enabling farmers to mitigate the impacts of disaster. But if these socalled “disasters” are to become the norm, where will we turn? The reality is, our current farming practices may not be sustainable in the years to come, and this future climate of ours, whatever that may be, really isn’t that far off. We need to learn to adapt as producers, and we need to do it now.

I travelled to Thailand earlier this year, and upon returning home, I presented each of my family members with a small gift. For my grandparents, some artwork. For my mom, some Thai silk scarves. For my dad, a rice paddy hat.

You never know, in a couple years, rice may just be the new wheat of the Prairies.

———

BytheendofthissummerinManitoba, theweatherchannelstayedsafewith thegeneralforecastofpartlycloudy witha60percentchanceofrain.”

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