Weathering the weather

The following column was published in the Guelph Mercury August 28 2008.

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Ontario farmers weather rainy summer – By Lilian Schaer

It seems to be our national obsession. We talk about it constantly — in the news, on the street, at the coffee shop — and we even have a television channel exclusively dedicated to it.

This year, wild and wacky weather has certainly dominated the summer headlines as we’ve been hit with everything from high winds, heavy rain, hail and tornadoes to an endless stream of storm watches and warnings.

Ontario, for example, normally averages 11 tornadoes per year during an April to October storm season, but this year, we’d already had nine confirmed tornadoes in the province by the end of July.

Rainfall levels have also been much higher than average in many parts of the province, including here in the Wellington-Waterloo region. According to Environment Canada, we received more than 200 millimetres of rainfall in July. Our norm is around 90 millimetres for that month, making this the wettest July in our area since 1988.

But for all the rained-out barbecues and cancelled beach days that are an inconvenience to most of us, the weather affects no one as much or as directly as farmers. For the people who grow our food, weather is a constant source of stress and worry.

One short, badly timed storm can wipe out an entire crop and as I’ve heard from more than one farmer, it can be pretty devastating when an entire season of hard work is wiped out in a few minutes of freak weather.

A fruit and vegetable grower I met on a farm tour earlier this summer told me that June was the absolute worst time for inclement weather on the farm — crops often aren’t strong enough yet to recover on their own but it’s too late to start over by replanting.

That’s a worst-case scenario, but even storm damage of a lesser nature can lower crop yield or quality. Both equal less income. Less crop coming off the field means less to sell and fruits or vegetables with weather blemishes may go into the lower-priced processing market instead of onto supermarket shelves as fresh, ready-to-eat product.

The growing demand for corn, soy and other grains and oilseeds, driven in part by an emerging biofuels industry, has focused more attention than usual on the outcome of this year’s harvest. Will farmers be able to capitalize on the first high prices in years with a bountiful, quality crop? Can we satisfy the consumer appetite for locally produced food with a grown in Ontario harvest?

At the end of the day, less income on the farm means less ability to pay bills and less left over at year’s end to invest into new innovations and technologies.

These days, agriculture is an expensive, high-tech business and farmers work hard to stay productive with the latest developments. It’s essential in a world where fewer and fewer farmers are expected to feed a continually growing global population — a point driven home by the food shortages some countries are experiencing.

Ultimately, the weather that impacts growers on the farm is also directly felt by consumers at the grocery store. A shortage of a particular crop can mean higher prices. Fruit and vegetables on store shelves and at farmers markets might be a little more blemished or a little smaller than we’re used to. We could also see more imported products if there isn’t enough local harvest to meet our demand.

But we are lucky here in Ontario. Our climate and the diversity of our agriculture are such that an Ontario harvest — even one challenged by this year’s less than ideal weather — is a bounty of riches: fruit, vegetables and field crops, even hanging baskets, bedding plants and cut flowers.

Good things really do grow in Ontario.

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