Waxing about weather defines us

The winter blahs have well and truly set in, especially for those of us who can’t escape by heading south. Last week’s few short days of warmth and sunshine seemed to transform our drab winter world as people reawakened and remerged. Everyone was talking about the weather those few days — because that’s what we do as Canadians, we talk about the weather.

And I’m not just basing that on my own observations or anecdotal experiences. Weather guru Chris St. Clair of The Weather Network talked about our collective national obsession with the weather at an agricultural conference in Guelph recently. It’s our thing, he said as he regaled us with funky weather facts – the French have wine, the Italians have romance and we have weather.

There’s a certain not very glamourous truth to that, I must admit. In the winter, we talk about how cold it is and how much snow we’ve had; in the summer we lament the heat and humidity or a rained-out long weekend. In short, there’s always something, although I’ve never yet managed to figure out why we as Canadians seem to take such particular ownership of weather-related issues.

Then again, I’ve also never thought this national preoccupation with weather to be particularly odd. I grew up on a dairy and crop farm and weather always somehow dominated our agenda. That’s because almost everything we do around growing and producing food eventually revolves around the weather.

In the spring, we wondered when the fields would be dry enough so we could start planting. Once the crops were in the ground, we hoped we would get enough – but not too much – rain and sun to keep the crops growing properly. During the summer months, hot and dry days were critical for getting the hay crop cut, dried and baled – if it got rained on, it’s quality diminished, making it a less valuable livestock feed. In the fall, too much rain could turn our fields to mud, making it hard or sometimes impossible to get heavy equipment onto the land to harvest the crops.

The weather is even more of a factor in fruit and vegetable production. A quick summer hail storm can reduce the value of a topnotch fruit crop to mere cents as hail causes blemishes on the fruit, making them less desirable than their mark-free counterparts. On the farm, one crazy turn of weather can change your entire year from great to disaster — and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Weather’s not just important in Canada though. Extreme weather events around the globe capture people’s attention — and many can have longer term effects on people in totally different parts of the world. For example, Russia, one of the world’s leading wheat producers, suffered through a devastating heat wave and drought in 2010, impacting their production.

In fact, their crop was so bad that they stopped exporting wheat to other countries and quickly, the global wheat price shot up, leading to drastic food price increases in many parts of the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has raised the spectre of a global food crisis after reporting that its food price index had hit a new historic high in January.

Our food prices here at home haven’t experienced the same increases. As we have for many years, we still marked Food Freedom Day, the day that the average Canadian has earned enough money to pay for their groceries for the year, in early February this year. But that’s not to say that weather cannot or will not affect our food choices and buying habits at some point.

There’s no doubt weather can make it challenging to live and grow food in Canada, but as Chris St. Clair said, it also makes us who and what we are. And boy does it ever give us something to talk about.

This column was originally published in the Guelph Mercury on February 24, 2011.

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