THE WEATHER HAS always been a popular topic of conversation for farmers, but this year, it was different. Talking about the weather was more than just idle chatter — with it was a sense of uncertainty.
Wet conditions delayed planting in many parts of the province until late May and even early June. That led many farmers to consider whether they should switch varieties or plant a different crop. Throughout the summer, we waited for warm temperatures and sunshine that were never in the forecast. Instead, parts of Ontario didn’t see a day above 30 degrees in July or most of August; there were reports of three feet of rain falling through the key growth period for corn and white mould infections were common in many soybean fields. By the middle of September, we were still holding out hope for just a few more good growing days as frost warnings began to make the evening news.
I don’t want to get into a debate about climate change; but whether you believe in it or not, no one can argue that our weather patterns are changing and we are seeing more extremes. This year, certainly, wasn’t the first for unexpected weather. During the drought two years ago, the rain came to southern Ontario literally hours before it was too late to save some corn fields. The spring of 2013 started out well, but then it became so wet in southwestern Ontario, some farmers had to replant three times. Last winter, it was so cold it reminded me of my days in Winnipeg, and the winter wheat crop suffered.
It’s hard to know what’s normal anymore. The issue is, we’ve come to rely on what we remember as normal.
The environment and the economy are intricately linked — and nowhere is that more true than in the Ontario agriculture sector. ‘Normal’ weather is what we base our industry on. We’ve developed longer season crop varieties that require more heat units to match the expected length of our growing season. We invest in nitrogen and other crop inputs with the expectation they will stay in the field and improve our yields. Ontario is considered to be a more sure crop area because of our unique geography, good soils, and (normally) stable climate. It’s an advantage we see reflected in our land values and our crop insurance rates and coverage. The concern is we don’t want to lose that advantage.
The good news, if you can call it that, is we aren’t the only ones being affected by the weather. Floods in Manitoba this year caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to farm properties. Alberta farmers faced a damaging hail event in August and wet snow in September. It has been so wet in Saskatchewan, farmers are talking about tiling when typically they try and get water on the land, not take it off. The harvest on my own family’s farm in Saskatchewan was two to three weeks late due to rain. In fact, in each of the last five years, we’ve been challenged by late seeding and wet summer weather.
If crop insurance has been important in the past, it’s going to be a lot more important in the future — we need only look to the record payouts being made through home insurance and disaster recovery programs after damaging weather events. We cannot as farmers take crop insurance for granted, nor can the government look at the expenditures within these programs and view them as a target for cost-cutting measures. We simply ask the government to leave the future of the crop insurance program in the hands of those who rely on it — the farmers. Climatologists say we are in for even more extremes in the future. That means this conversation is only beginning. •