Waiting for the rain

Sophie Kuijper Dickson

For the first two months of the growing season, the Pontiac, and much of North America, experienced some degree of abnormally dry conditions. The Government of Canada’s May 2021 Drought Assessment classified most of the Ottawa Valley as “abnormally dry” while the region between Chapeau and Rapide-des-Joachimes fell into a “moderate drought” zone. 

These conditions are not unfamiliar to this region. Drought data collected by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada show abnormally to moderately dry springs in the Pontiac for five of the past ten years. 

Everybody, in some way, is affected by this. Gardens are thirstier, lawns yellow, rivers and lakes shrink into themselves. For local farmers, however, waiting for rain is more than just an easy conversation topic. The stakes are a little bit higher. 

Brandan Smith has been farming grain for ten years, working with 1000 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat. 

“It was kind of do or die for us there,” he admits.  One week before the first rains arrived, he watched as his corn plants began wilting and curling in on themselves in a last attempt to preserve whatever water they had left.  

“Another week and we wouldn’t have had a crop.”

This spring’s drought was not contained to this region, but extended through the United States and Brazil, two key corn suppliers. 

“The supply and demand chain was a bit nervous, so the prices went up,” explains Smith. The potential of cashing in on this year’s higher corn prices added pressure to every day that the rain didn’t come. The experience of drought, for Smith, as for many cash crop grain farmers, is not restricted to the climate’s behaviour on his own farm. Smith’s day to day crop management decisions have everything to do with whether or not there is rain falling thousands of miles away. 

While the heavy precipitation of the past week has mitigated his most pressing concerns, the success of his season is not yet a guarantee. The spring’s dry soils meant spotty and uneven germination within the corn crop. Unless the region sees a long warm fall, much of his crop will be under mature, lowering the grade of his corn when it comes time to harvest. 

Looking at the long term, Smith would not go so far as to say that the increased temperatures and less predictable climate conditions are related to climate change. 

“I think we’re in a cycle, we’ve had dry years before.“ 

Nevertheless, he does what he must to survive in an increasingly dry climate. 

“We’re doing 75 per cent no-till, and cover cropping, to keep the moisture in the ground. That’s how we’re adapting.”

Smith notes that the crops were not the only victims of the drought.

“With no rain, you’re always onto the next thing. If it rained every Sunday, half an inch once a week, it gives you time to rest.” Over the years, Smith has learned that rain or no rain, sometimes he just has to stop. 

Organic vegetable farmer Randi Townsend would agree with this.

Together with her husband Jonathan Smiley, she grows five acres of mixed vegetables for market, CSA boxes, and restaurant sales. 

“We always say it should rain Saturday from 3pm until Sunday at 10am, then we’ll have our Sunday, and then we’ll have our work week.” Pontiac’s most recent drought did not make this kind of rythm possible. 

“This year was a surprise,” says Townsend. “We had hot summer weather right off the bat, so had to reorient the way that we do everything around treating the plants like it’s the middle of summer.”

For a market garden, this means heavy irrigation, both for the crops already in the field and for the seedlings in the potting house. 

“When it’s so hot and so dry, and the soils are so depleted of water, we’re never able to actually satisfy the needs of the entire farm with irrigation, so we’re always just kind of juggling who needs it the most,” says Townsend. This spring, irrigating the crops in the fields and the seedlings in the potting house added upwards of five hours of work a day. 

While the water supply has not been an issue, it’s the labour of moving it that is causing Townsend to reconsider how they should be irrigating their farm. 

“We’re way maxed out for labour already. We know that we are never going to get all the things done, so when you add in having to move in irrigation, at that time of year especially…. you’re constantly just keeping up.”

Townsend explains that in a good year, there is a predictable order to the season. May is spent making beds and transplanting the first crops into the fields. A wet spring makes it difficult to get into the fields to make the beds without damaging the soil. For this reason, this year’s early dry spring was favourable.

Mid May through to the end of June is weeding time. There is a small window of time where weeding is most efficient, most effective, and therefore most economical. For this period, hot and dry conditions are ideal. Excessive rain can mean missing this window. 

“It’s so funny because we’ve been waiting for all this rain and now we got this huge dump, and we’re like, how are we going to take care of these weeds, and how are we going to make the beds that we need to make?” 

Townsend dreams of a rain that comes once or twice a week throughout the season, one inch at a time. This kind of rain was once a reality for her. When she started farming more than ten years ago, she saw a consistency in how the seasons evolved. Now, she feels as though her and Smiley are having to reinvent the wheel every year. 

“Its a funny question to be asked outright, how does the weather affect you emotionally, because it’s just part of our life. If you’re farming, weather is the thing. You really need to build resilience, which is harder as the weather gets more unpredictable.”

For market gardeners, adapting to an increase in unpredictable weather could depend on less labour intensive irrigations systems, growing more crops in climate controlled greenhouses, and pre-making the first beds of the season so as to be able to work within the smaller dry windows between spring flooding.

“Number one in having a resilient farm is having super healthy soil that both drains well and holds water well,” insists Townsend. “So soil with high organic matter, and good tilth.”

In order to achieve this, Townsend takes a more holistic approach to farming. 

“As long as I’m aware of what the soil needs and I’m giving back to it, I’m repaying myself over and over again.”

This is an approach that dairy farmer Scott Judd has noticed to be increasingly popular in the region. 

“There’s more demand and interest in doing cover crops now, more in Pontiac than I’ve ever seen in all my years of farming,” says Judd. “People know that they have to keep that soil there.” 

As president of the Pontiac chapter of L’Union des Producteurs Agricole (UPA), Judd keeps in touch with how his neighbouring farmers are fairing and what new methods they are adopting in order to survive. 

“I took a drive down, as farmers do, you got to check on the neighbours, and see how everybody is doing.” 

Large portions of the crops planted in the clay soil that dominates the fields below the 148 were showing patchy germination. 

“It was hard to get the seeds down into any kinds of moisture,” he says. “Some sections were fine, and some sections were not germinating very well at all.”

Judd’s farm is just north of the 148, safely in the sandy soils that offered far better germination this spring. 

“Drought affects the dairy crops for sure. Corn is very sensitive to dry conditions, and so are hay fields, and alfalfa.” 

While Judd is predicting he’ll end up with a smaller straw yield, as the grains are going to head before they reach their usual height, he emphasizes that he is far better off than the beef farmers who are dependent on healthy pastures in order to feed their cattle. 

“That panic starts to set in when you have cattle that need to be fed every day and your pasture is brown and you’re feeding the hay you were planning on feeding in December, that’s probably a bigger challenge. And your one crop is beef cows on pasture.”

He has seen these farmers start growing more heat resistant crops, such as sourgum and millet, in order to increase their forage yield in dryer times. 

“That kind of crop diversification is what we’re going to see coming forward.”

On Judd’s own farm, he uses cover cropping and no-till or vertical tillage methods in order to build a nutrient rich and water retentive soil.  

“You’re just cutting the plant material on top of the ground, and then just leave it there, so you end up with this mass of trash on top of the soil,” he explains. 

“And that’s all part of fighting against drought. You get more trash on top and each little bit of trash comes with a bit of shade, and the shade keeps the evaporation down, and helps you just that little bit to get you through that droughty period.”

Also essential to Judd’s drought resilience is crop diversification. When he is not taking care of his dairy cows he is running the Little Red Wagon winery and vineyard with his wife Jen. This business is built around grapes, which thrive in dry conditions. 

“We can find some joy in whatever the season now,” says Judd. 

Judd refers to a recent report that was put together by Agriclimate and Conseil pour le Développement de l’Agriculture du Québec (CDAQ) in order to help farmers of the region imagine what kinds of conditions they should expect by the year 2050. In this profile, it is forecast that there will be an increase in extreme dry periods as well as in intense summer storms. It also predicts that the Pontiac will become one of the warmest regions in Quebec.

“Is that bad for Pontiac? Not in the least. It’s actually good for Pontiac,” says Judd, excited about the opportunity for a longer growing season with higher yields of larger crops. 

“That would be a bad thing if we weren’t looking after our soils. But if we go with a good crop rotation, and we use cover crops, we get our organic matter up, with minimum tillage, we’ll be able to reap the benefits of a warmer climate.”

Judd doesn’t deny that the changing climate will entail many detrimental side effects, but believes that if farmers adapt properly and are open to changing their practices, they will do well for themselves. 

The warming of the local climate is something that L’Isle-aux-Allumettes farmer and data analyst David Gillespie has been tracking for many years. He is a numbers guy, and spends much of his time collecting and analyzing region-specific climate data from Environment Canada’s Petawawa air base station. 

“Pontiac’s got to be known as one of the driest places in all of Quebec,” says Gillespie. 

While he’s been farming for 43 years, he’s moved away from commercial and downsized to small-scale, mixed farming, which includes grain, hay, produce and firewood. 

“I took weather courses in university. Being a farmer, I thought that would be kind of important, and it was, thank god,” he laughs. 

In an email to The Equity in early June, he explained, “Yesterday (Sunday, June 6th), Pembroke recorded a temperature of 34.7 C (95 F) with a humidex of 41 C (106 F), a record high for that date and the warmest spot in all of Canada. The previous record for that date was 32.2 C in 1976.” 

The record highs are particularly noteworthy to Gillespie. 

According to his data set, there have been 47 more heat records and 22 more cold records broken since 2008 as compared to before 2008. 

“That is more than twice as many new heat records as cold records,” he points out. “If there are more heat records it’s because things are getting warmer.” 

He does not beat around the bush when it comes to explaining this increase in extreme conditions. “Climate change,” he concludes. “There’s no ifs ands or buts about it.” 

In terms of adapting his own methods to be more resilient in what he reads to be a warming climate, he uses twice the field space and twice the storage capacity so that surplus hay can be grown when the climate is favourable and stored for when the conditions are not. He too is adamant about developing higher organic content in his soil through green manuring practices, so that the soil is better able to absorb and hold the moisture. 

“If you’re not using green manure, eventually you get to soil-less soil,” he explains. “On a dry year you really see it. The water just runs right off.” 

When asked if his close relation with the climate data enables him to predict what a season might look like, he points out that in the past month we’ve had two hard frosts, record drought for this time of year, 84 millimetres of rain in 36 hours this past weekend, as well as many record hot days. 

“Throw that all in one month, and then you ask if I can predict?” he laughs. 

“What I can tell you, and it’s what the climate scientists have been saying for years, is that the extremes are going to be more and more frequent.”

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