Farming and climate change: Supporting producers while encouraging sustainability

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Around the world, climate change is affecting the way humans grow food.

Farming has always been highly dependent on weather conditions and the length of the growing season, and it takes both knowledge and experience to determine when to plant which crops and where.

Even experienced farmers have no guaranteed formula for success.

Although the Canadian prairies are sometimes called the breadbasket of the world, local farmers are not unaffected by changing climate trends.

In fact, they are in the midst of ongoing discussions surrounding agricultural practices right here at home and how farming in our area both contributes to and is affected by climate change.

Many are facing these changes with openness and curiosity. Others find it difficult to engage in climate discussions without feeling anxiety for the future. Still others actively look for ways to introduce new initiatives to their farms. And of course there are those who are resistant to change and prefer to do things the way they have always done them.

All of them desire to continue feeding the local and global community more effectively, while making sure that viable farmland remains healthy for generations to come.

The Long Hot Summer

Marc Loeppky and Holly Lamont are two farmers from southeast Manitoba.

While Loeppky works a large-scale operation and Lamont owns a small family farm, their reflections on climate change come at time when both have just come through the same growing season that brought the concurrent challenges of high temperatures, low rainfall, and long periods of strong wind.

It hasn’t been an easy ride, any any means.

“The 2021 growing season was a rollercoaster,” says Lamont, who owns ten acres between Highway 311 and Prefontaine Road about four miles west of Highway 59. “There was quite a bit of wind erosion in this area for people who had tilled in the fall of 2020, leaving all that topsoil loose, and then 2020 also had a windy winter with not as much snow cover. So by spring our topsoil had been tossed around. That was a lesson for us.”

Lamont and her husband have owned their property for four years since moving from Saskatchewan.

Both have post-secondary degrees in agriculture and haved worked hard to put that education to use when developing their approach to farming.

“This spring, we had started off with thinking that much of our seeds would not germinate due to being overly saturated early on,” she says. “Then it started to dry up and we saw some plants—first our cucumbers, then pumpkins—start to emerge. There wasn’t much emerging, so I kind of thought that our season was going to be very minimal.”

The Lamonts’ farm doesn’t provide a full-time income stream for the family.

In fact, the pair only started the farm very recently, when Lamont decided to stay home after having taken a maternity leave.

“Well, then it got really hot,” Lamont says. “Those little seeds began to emerge like crazy. All of a sudden we had all these cotyledons showing and so I filled up our water truck and started watering. Then it stayed warm for quite some time and things began to get too dry.”

Lamont says they tried to keep up with the watering, but that wasn’t sustainable.

Another challenge was the grasshoppers that showed up to eat most of the flowers as they appeared.

“Again, I thought we would have nothing. The flowers were eaten pretty badly and it just looked quite sad out there.”

In farming, patience is often rewarded, and eventuially things turned around. With a couple shots of rain, the plants came back.

With the warm weather extending into mid-October, they ended up having a high yield.

Considering their small acreage, the Lamonts were able to sufficiently water their rows with a flatbed truck holding two large tanks of water.

“We use a fire hose setup and drive up and down the rows watering our plants,” she says. “It’s a little backwoods, but it does the trick and we have a lot of fun with it. We make sure to seed our rows far enough apart that we can drive the truck down the rows and have room to turn around on the headlands.”

On Loeppky’s land, a larger farm immediately south of Niverville, they experienced the same dry conditions.

However, Loeppky was able to identify an upside: no rain meant no wet mud, a real drain on time and energy for big operations.

“We were dry, there’s no doubt about that,” says Loeppky. “We’re already behind the eight-ball on moisture for next year. But there have been benefits, too… In the Red River Valley, there’s about ten days from the ground thaw to when you should be done putting in your seed. If it’s too wet, it’s muddy and you can’t seed. So this year, we didn’t have that problem.”

Overall, Loeppky refrained from calling it a drought year.

Although he does go on to describe the great degree to which crops in this area struggled under the oppressive heat.

“If it doesn’t rain in a July like it did this year, it doesn’t have to be called a drought, like as a blanket statement,” he says. “This year we didn’t have the rain in July, so it was dry. We saw slow growth, very slow, but if you caught one little rain shower, it changed things drastically. It took a 50 per cent crop to an 80 per cent crop in one rainfall. So I would say the season went well; yield is always your biggest gauge as to how the season went.”

With little to no rain at midseason, Loeppky says that the farmers already knew what kind of yields would they would be harvesting off the fields…

…and they were bracing themselves for the worst.

Loeppky acknowledges that the immediate area had it better than some other parts of Manitoba.

His farm ended up gleaning about 60 per cent of what they would normally get.

“Soybeans were surprisingly okay, and some did well on spring wheat,” Loeppky says. “Canola was by far the worst hit by the heat and lack of rain. It was spotty.”

Despite the lower yields, Loeppky expresses optimism that the fall soil conditions aren’t any worse than they already are.

“We really are one year away from a bumper crop or one year away from a drought at any given time, and so we don’t worry about that,” he says. “We’ve had a good long and proper fall and we’ve had time to get our fields in as best a condition as we possibly can. The soil is dry on top but is showing signs of holding moisture further down where we need it. So I would say that summer was hot, and our yields were down, but the harvest was decent.”

Changing Patterns

Manitoba weather is known for its unpredictability.

It is well known that the degree of snow accumulation during the winter often dramatically influences the upcoming summer’s moisture levels.

But sometimes a dry winter is followed by an early spring snowstorm that delays seeding, threatening the whole growing season’s sensitive planting, growing, and harvesting timeline.

Managing these uncertainties is no easy feat.

According to a report from the Prairie Climate Centre, “Manitoba’s climate is changing, and the province is projected to continue to warm much faster than the global average—a product of the region’s northern latitude and continental geography. These changes are likely to have very large impacts on the province and its people.”1

Upon studying data that stems back as far as 1976, the report forecasts that in a high-carbon scenario parts of Manitoba will continue to experience large shifts in climate, the widespread effects of which are already being seen.

In the coming decades, regions all across the southern part of Manitoba should expect to see approximately 36 more days above 30°C per year, about 15 more 20°C nights, and 33 more frost-free days.

Climate models show that Manitoba’s winters will get shorter as well, resulting in a longer growing season.

This is expected to lead to new opportunities in agriculture.

However, the longer growing season will also come with higher temperatures, which will increase the risk of drought, crop heat stress, and pest problems.

Science-based flood and drought predictions help, but weather models don’t always get it right.

One thing they do reveal, however, is that extreme weather in Canada is here to stay.2

“If I think back 15 years, I was in college studying agriculture. And I can’t say for sure if I remember that it rained more or if growing conditions were different back then,” says Lamont, who studied livestock production in Alberta. “Recently, I do remember more snow in October than we have had for the past couple of years. But it’s hard for me to say for sure. This year it didn’t seem like we had many storms. Last year seemed stormier to me. What I do know for sure is that the experts and people who do pay attention and study weather patterns and climate change are saying that change is happening. They are saying that the earth is warming up. I believe it is.”

Lamont has noticed that the patterns are changing.

She says that spring seems to come a little later than it used to and fall seems to stay a little longer.

Even though people tend to say we’ve had plenty of “wonky” weather like this in the past, she says that it’s really critical to acknowledge when the changes show themselves to be consistent over long periods of time.

Loeppky doesn’t necessarily feel like there have been enough years to demonstrate a pattern of consistent enough weather changes to impact his seeding or harvesting schedules.

At least, not yet.

“The spring doesn’t seem to be coming much earlier, and so we’ve found that you can’t really push your springtime plant any earlier,” he says. “In the fall, yes, we’ve noticed a longer and longer fall. But it’s not dependable. Typically, our first frost would be October 13, or around there, and we’ve seen that change a bit. We went almost a month beyond our concern for first frost this year, which is remarkable. But who’s to say we don’t get an August frost next year? We still can get an early frost in Manitoba, and one year or two years isn’t enough to start putting in seeds counting on a long frost… the risk is still too great.”

When it comes to other risks, severe storms didn’t pose much of a threat this past summer.

But southern Manitoba, positioned at the northernmost tip of tornado alley, has experienced devastating storm damage to crops in previous years.

There may not have been rain washouts and hail, but most farms experienced an increase in soil erosion.

“One of my biggest concerns right now in regards to our operation is wind erosion,” says Lamont. “It does seem that the wind has been exceptionally persistent these past two years, and that comes with huge concerns. It strips away the fertile topsoil and does countless other damage. There are better ways to preserve and care for the soil and I’m trying to learn to work with the land rather than against it.”

Along with most Manitobans, Loeppky has seen all the ditches turn black from the thick layers of dirt being blown in from fields.

“Topsoil loss has been very concerning. I’ve observed it a lot,” he says. “Wet earth doesn’t blow, but dry dirt does. So we know it’s been dry for a few years. We’ve gone through many seasons where it’s been wet, too, and the dirt doesn’t blow. But when things are changing, and you can see it, it makes things real. We know things are changing. We all see the black topsoil blowing.”

Loeppky points out that the last time the Red River Valley had a long dry spell was back in the 1980s.

Since it’s been quite a long while since those drought years, seeing the recent dry weather and blowing soil does start to make people feel anxious.

“We Know Our Dirt”

Loeppky acknowledges that many farmers like to talk about the weather, but it can be difficult for many big farm owners to talk openly about the larger issue of climate change.

“I’m not a fan of the term climate change,” he admits. “I’m not a climate denier by any means, but it’s a challenging thing to talk about without people going really negative, really fast.”

He feels that the finger of public perception—and the political policy changes that tend to go along with it—often points unfairly at agriculture, blaming food producers for the effects of climate change and expecting them to bear the responsibility to change.

“Farming doesn’t change on a dime,” Loeppky says. “The political pressure of zero emissions or cutting rates of fertilizing, it’s in some areas going to be easy to do and in some areas it won’t be easy to do. There will be negative effects of putting those policy changes onto farms, too. From a major food producing area, we will tell you, some of the things that are proposed or handed down to us, that’s not the way to produce more food. It’s frustrating when people say, ‘You should go organic, you should go zero till.’ But we know our dirt. That’s how we make our living… What works in another area may work and then we try it and it doesn’t work in Manitoba.”

Sustainability

Agricultural experts and hobbyists alike have been finding that some plants previously known to be ill-suited to our cold continental climate are now able to be grown more successfully here.

Like peas, for example. The hearty plant is known to endure heat better than other crops.

“In 2016–18, we never would’ve tried peas in the Red River Valley in our heavy dirt,” Loeppky says. “But now some of us in the area have been trying it more and more. But with my luck, I’ll plant them in spring and then it will be a wet year.”

Being able to grow new types of crops might be seen as a silver lining, which has led to some Manitobans developing an attitude of acceptance, downplaying or even rejoicing in the effects of climate change.

After all, in our area of the world, not all the farming changes related to climate change are necessarily negative.

And indeed, it is hard to argue with a field that boasts blossoms and bears fruit.

“I mean, selfishly, I’d love to say that I appreciate the extended warm weather because my garden, my flowers, and our field of pumpkins and other produce grew right up to last week,” says Lamont. “Vibrant colours, fresh veggies, lots of life in the fields… It’s nice to see.”

But Lamont says that she understands the short-term benefit from experiencing these small thrills has a long-term detrimental effect on us all.

“I see climate change as a threat and not beneficial at all,” she says. “Because we live in Manitoba, we get excited for that extension of warm weather, but in other parts of the world the extra warm weather means wildfires and rising sea levels. Eventually that catches up to us here in Manitoba, too.”

It has been a learning opportunity for Lamont to witness firsthand all the regular practices that are in place here in Manitoba agriculture. For example, she has had frequent offers from her farming neighbours to help out by spraying her crops as they pass by with their machinery.

She says that she is very much thankful for these offers, which exhibit an intrinsic desire for neighbours to show support for one another, but she has so far been committed to being pesticide-free.

Lamont wants to see if a small farm can produce food while keeping its environmental impact as low as possible.

“We are small growers,” she says of their operation. “In that, though, we have sure learned that small acres doesn’t mean small impact. It’s been a lot of fun and learning to be able to farm less, better. We don’t have the opportunity to farm on a big scale here, so we have learned to take account of every plant, every vegetable harvested, and it just feels really personal and intimate. I think there is something to be said for growing food this way.”

For Lamont, it’s not just about putting food on the table right now, but to encourage all farmers—and all families—to talk about what it means, and what can be done, to ensure that there will be healthy and sustainable ways for farms to produce food for generations to come.

“I think that we all need to put climate change in the forefront of our thoughts these days, in everything we do, from the small to the big,” she adds. “Being a mom, with two young children that I hope get the chance to grow up in a healthy, safe, and sustainable world, I try to do better and learn how to be a better advocate for the environment. I think that it’s also important to teach our children the importance, too.”

Risk vs. Reward

For Loeppky’s larger operation, doing things in new ways is a lot more costly an investment at the outset and a lot riskier if the innovations don’t work.

That being said, even though change is hard, he is not at all opposed to it and has seen some good changes come to the industry.

“Climate change discussion and the government policies have definitely caused some innovation and changes to come to large-scale farming,” Loeppky says. “The pressure to change might be tough. You fight it a little bit, especially if you have been at it a while… But you know you need to change, and in hindsight you may realize, yeah, that was a good change.”

Loeppky says his farm hasn’t employed any really drastic changes yet, but small changes can be effective, too.

One area which he describes as a good example is just being more aware of tilling strategies in general and deciding to till the soil less, which can help it hold more moisture. This, in turn, can ensure healthier crops and higher yields if the weather get drier.

“The Red River Valley is unique,” says Loeppky. “We do more tilling in our heavy clays than most of North America, but if you go to Saskatchewan, what we call a drought, they call normal. So we’ve been learning from them, and they’ve learned not to turn their crop over as much. Yes, we want to work the leftover growth into the ground and we also want to have a nice seedbed for next year, so we used to run the fields a number of passes… With the weather changing the way it has, you have to adapt and maybe not till quite as much.”

The Prairie Climate Centre has found that the farmers they talk to are saying some of the same things as Loeppky. They offer assurances that farmers are not only aware of climate change, they are already taking action.

For some people, the entire farming industry can’t change quickly enough, but farm owners will tell you that the changes must be made slowly and with great care so as not to endanger the food supply chain on which we all depend.

“I know it’s hard to talk to some farm owners about climate change,” says Loeppky. “There’s a lot of stuff in farming that’s like, ‘I’m doing this ‘cuz my dad did it and my dad’s dad did it.’ And they didn’t do it for fun. They did it because it works. They knew their land and what to do to produce crops… But it’s going to change and we’re going to adapt. As far as the large farm goes, we need to take a focus toward sustainability and think about the future. For my operation, yes, I’d like to continue to grow, but if I can’t expand my land base, I’d like to do more and better with what I have.”

Mental Health Demands

Farming in Manitoba, and elsewhere of course, is often a strenuous mental exercise as much as it is physical.

Staying positive in the face of challenges is a very real demand placed upon farmers, and supporting the mental health of the farming community is an increasingly important need.

“Farmers are often called eternal optimists, and it’s true,” adds Loeppky. “It’s a challenge to know what is good for us and what is bad or not useful, and sometimes you need to block out the noise. For me, I’m not at all anxious for the future. We got 60 per cent of a normal yield after a challenging year. For those outside the farming industry, think about it as if you took 40 per cent of someone’s salary away. They’d be devastated! The politics of things make us farmers anxious sometimes, but it’s not enough to change my overall demeanour toward farming or my overall perception of the future. I’m just out here working the land and I’m telling you that it looks good and I’m excited for next year already.”

The rest of the community can help support farmers by encouraging positive discussions around climate change that doesn’t cast blame.

We can learn about and affirm the positive changes farmers are able to make, conserve water, and change our spending habits to make environmentally conscious consumer choices.

We all have a fundamental role to play in discussing climate change and supporting the development of the resilient agricultural systems that are necessary for us all.

Sara Beth Dacombe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen

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