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Wonky weather can’t deter area farmers

‘You deal with it. You adapt ... We’ve never not had a crop in the marsh. You’ll always get something,’ says Holland Marsh farmer

From a dry spring, to wildfire haze, to downpours, to the record heat, growers in and around the Holland Marsh aren’t letting this year’s weird weather rain on their parade.

While there is no dedicated weather station in the marsh itself, David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, surveyed six stations in the surrounding area and found that from mid-May to mid-June, the area only saw about 10 per cent as much rain as expected.

The three-week period from May 20 to June 11 in particular only saw about five millimetres of rain.

“That’s like a thimble full,” Phillips said.

Irrigation was the key to success according to Dennie Moser of Dominion Farm Produce, a wholesaler which has been in operation in Bradford since 1964, and ships produce all over North America, the Caribbean and into South America.

“All the guys in this area here, we just made our own rain. Everybody’s equipped with good irrigation systems. It was a little bit drier than normal, but nothing alarming,” he said.

Despite that, Moser said there were still some losses as some early carrots burned off and he estimated about 10-15 per cent had to be replanted.

Shane Singh is the second-generation owner of Springh Farms in Bradford which has been in operation since 1979, and he found the dry May to be a mixed blessing.

"We’re by the river there, so we definitely can use the river to irrigate. We did get some later frosts, so the drought with the frost did burn off a little bit of the early stages of some stuff, but it did help to set some of the other later fall stuff. We win some; we lose some,” he said.

Seedlings struggled a bit according to Stephanie Lovat, who helps sell produce at farmers’ markets for E.F.T. Farms in Cookstown, which has been in operation since 1994.

“We have the ditches in our area, so it holds a little bit of water, but it wasn’t great for the seedlings going into the ground, so we had to water,” she said.

Tracy So is the owner of Curious Cap Mushroom Farm which is in its first year growing a variety of mushrooms inside a shipping container.

That controlled environment isn’t impervious to the effects of weather, though.

“We have to adjust the environment more. When it’s raining outside, I don’t have to humidify the room as much. I save on the energy that way. It just naturally creates the perfect environment for the mushrooms to grow, but when it’s dryer, then the humidifier will kick on,” So said.

The dry weather was also accompanied by heat at the end of May, but that was partially offset by the eerie haze and smoke from wildfires burning in northern Ontario and Quebec, which helped block the sun.

“We were seeing actually a lot of smoke at that time, and some of that kept the sun, the heat of the day away from the area. It wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but it wasn’t the triple Hs — the hot, the haze and the humidity,” Phillips said.

According to Moser, that haze made it hard to convince some crops to grow.

“That haze, that smoke, stuff just stalled out. There was one week, you couldn’t see out there, so a lot of the early onions, they stalled out. They’ve caught back up now and we’re back on schedule, but there was a little bit of a worry there for a bit,” he said.

While many people were being warned to stay inside as much as possible, agricultural workers were toughing it out.

“You don’t have a choice when you’re in the Bradford farming industry. You just go. There wasn’t much you can do. Outside workers, they work outside,” Moser said.

Springh Farms didn’t see as much impact from smoke on crops, and actually found masking habits from the pandemic helped workers handle the haze.

“Our guys and ourselves we all work with masks anyways. Since COVID really set us working with masks, we find that we’re actually breathing a little bit better from it, from a lack of allergies. Working a full day, we always have our masks on,” Singh said.

Luckily, for E.F.T. Farms, the haze wasn’t much an issue for the crops or the workers.

“It’s a very open area, so it was OK. I live in the city and it was worse in the city than up here actually,” Lovat said.

At Curious Cap Mushroom Farm, the lighting inside the container is automated, so the amount of sunlight doesn’t impact the growing conditions, but the smoke still caused some issues for the mushrooms.

“They don’t like excessive CO2 levels. It tends to stunt some mushroom growth,” So said, noting the ventilation fans had to run more to keep the air moving.

Luckily, that hot, hazy dry spell ended in mid June when the clouds gathered and delivered what Phillips calls “rescue rains.”

“You’ve gone from a very dry situation from early May into early almost mid-June, but after that it’s almost as if the gods answered the prayers of the growers because you’ve got actually a lot of rain,” he said.

Phillips estimated there was 42 per cent more precipitation than normal in the second half of June.

“You had really two Junes, you had a first half that was bone dry and you had a second half that, my gosh, you couldn’t turn off the faucet. It was just raining and raining and raining,” he said.

Phillips also noted that much of that rain came in bursts, with 45-55 mm of rain over one or two days followed by three or four days with no rain and then the cycle would repeat.

Luckily, Dominion Farm Produce saw no damage from the bursts, since the ground was able to absorb the moisture according to Moser.

“That water was actually welcome. It was kind of timely. You had some downpours and it would be three or four days and you’d get another bit of rain come down, but there was no flooding or anything like that,” he said.

At Springh farms, Singh said the rains caused issues with germination.

“We definitely have some issues with that with heavy downpours, it really sets the soil and when it gets that heat afterwards it almost forms a concrete. We definitely had a lot of poor germination. The wind in the next couple days afterwards had helped to dry things out, so leafy greens and all that did OK,” he said.

Still, Singh said they had to reseed some areas and also had issues with herbicides.

“We do use a little bit of herbicide on some of the products. With rain, sometimes it actually strengthens it, so it actually ended up injuring a lot of the stuff,” he said.

In response, Singh said they went without using herbicides as much as possible and as a result they now need to hand weed certain areas.

“'Tis the nature of the beast as they say,” he said.

At E.F.T. Farms, there were also some losses, but Lovat was cautious to avoid overestimating the extent.

“Everything was just really wet, so some fields were damaged. Everything was just wet and it rots out,” she said.

Continuing the trend of adverse conditions, just last week on July 27, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres warned that July 2023 had the highest global average temperatures ever recorded.

“We don’t have to wait for the end of the month to know this. Short of a mini-Ice age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board,” Guterres said in a press release.

That was based on data from the World Meteorological Organization and the European Commission’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which said the global mean surface air temperature average for the first 23 days of July 2023 was 16.95 C, which they called “well above” the 16.63 C recorded for the month of July 2019 — currently the warmest July and warmest month on record.

However, those global averages don’t necessarily mean it was the hottest July in Bradford.

At Dominion Farm Produce, Moser said the increase in global averages weren’t as noticeable locally.

“It was hotter than normal worldwide, but we didn’t see it hotter than normal here. It was actually a nice month,” he said.

Moser saw that most days were about 26 C or 27 C, with cooler nights and timely rains.

“None of the growers I’m talking to are complaining out there. I think we got a fairly good growing season, and if you go around the area of the marsh, everything looks pretty good out there,” he said.

At Springh farms, the heat means switching away from leafy greens, in favour of underground crops like carrots, parsnips and beats.

“We have a lot of leafy greens which burn off and struggle with heat. We use a lot of Epsom salt and calcium to offset some of it and sea kelp that actually cools the leaves and the core of the plant, but to what degree? It can only work for so long and for so much,” Singh said.

In addition to changing what can be grown, Singh said, the heat changes how the farm can be worked.

“We do take it day by day. If it’s hot, we tell the guys take your breaks. There’s no specific time. When you want a break, take your breaks, because the heat patterns are unbelievable — off the chart,” he said.

At E.F.T. Farms, Lovat said the crops they grow respond well to the heat, but it can be hard on the people.

“For us, it’s a lot. We’re always hydrating, and making sure we drink water. We take rotating breaks. It’s hard, but we have to be out there,” she said.

At Curious Cap Mushroom Farm, So said the heat means some mushroom won’t grow at all.

“Some mushrooms really don’t like the heat and they just won’t grow. They’ll wait for a cooler temperature before they sprout, so we’ll lose out on the growing season that way,” she said.

As a result, worker Graham McKinnon said they’re considering installing A/C in the grow room.

“We’re looking to consume more energy, so from an environmental perspective it’s worse. We grow our mushrooms in buckets, not bags to be environmentally conscious, so the added heat does add to our carbon footprint,” he said.

A period of good weather, however brief can be a welcome reprieve for farmers constantly encountering and overcoming unexpected challenges from mother nature.

Despite larger swings in weather patterns, Moser said local farmers do the best they can to deal with it.

“You can’t throw your hands up and say ‘We can’t do this anymore’ You deal with it. You adapt. Hurricane hazel was the 50s, the marsh was flooded and they adapted and they got over that, and we’ve never not had a crop in the marsh. You’ll always get something,” he said.

At E.F.T. Farms, Lovat said every week holds different challenges and they find different ways to deal with it.

“You take it as it is. Today it’s raining and we’re going to go back with a lot of our product, but it is what it is, and we deal with it,” she said of a soggy Saturday at the Bradford Farmers’ Market.

At Springh Farms, Singh said the cost of preparing and seeding is high and it’s stressful not knowing if he’ll have a good yield.

“I come home everyday with a hand up in the air and saying ‘What’s next?’ You don’t know what to prepare for,” he said.

Singh appreciates having the support of his wife to help him through it, but noted that other farmers who have had enough are retiring or quitting.

“We deal with it day by day,” he said.

Multiple calls and emails to the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association over multiple weeks went unanswered.

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Michael Owen

About the Author: Michael Owen

Michael Owen has worked in news since 2009 and most recently joined Village Media in 2023 as a general assignment reporter for BradfordToday
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