“The dry years scare you, the wet years starve you.” That is a weather saying that, while new to me, is one that from my experience rings pretty true. Hopefully it will be true again this year as we feel the humidity build and hope it signals rainfall for us. In our little corner of Huron County, we’ve been lucky. We got about two inches of rain that missed a lot of people. Today, we got half an inch, while farms five or ten miles away got nothing. It is just that kind of summer – where no one ever seems to get that all day, million dollar rain.
As farmers, most of our lives are dictated by the weather – the 24-hour forecast is one of my best friends! While we love to complain about the accuracy of weather forecasts – they are the best that we have – I would argue, better than what people used to use in the past. Like a lot of areas in life, our expectations are just higher now.
For those who rely on the Farmers’ Almanac, I would say that so far this year, the predictions in it have been a bit of a bust. I don’t normally look at it – but thought I’d take a peek and compare what it says to what we’ve experienced. For 2018, April was predicted to be the only month until September to experience less than “normal” rainfall, while May, June, July, and August were all predicted to have higher than normal rainfall.
Then there is all the weather lore – some has more reliability than others. Some is just downright funny. Before the development of our high tech equipment, people relied on all sorts of tools to help them predict the weather – including observations of animals, nature, clouds, and even their own health. Festivals have even been created around some famous rodents and their weather predictions. While the success of some of these can be attributed to selective memory, others can be a bit useful for forecasting what is to come.
While there will always be variations in weather year to year, looking at long-term trends and changes is helpful when making decisions on how to deal with the weather. One speaker I heard a couple of years ago from North Dakota pointed out that it is all about managing water – having moisture where we need it when we need it. Extreme rainfall events carry our topsoil and nutrients away, while dry weather obviously leaves our crops to dry out in the sun.
Dr. Rod MacRae, Associate Professor of Food Studies at York University and Phil Beard, General Manager/Secretary-Treasurer of the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority updated a report on agriculture and climate change for the Maitland Watershed Partnerships. The first one was generated in 2000, updated in 2008 and updated again in 2015.
They found that a 71 per cent decline in ice coverage over the Great Lakes between 1973 and 2010 has resulted in more lake evap-oration, more snow squalls, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles, ice storms, and winter flooding. In addition, “since 1900, total annual precipitation has increased by almost 11 per cent”.
This can be backed up by precipitation data found on the Environment Canada website. While it is obvious from this chart that there are variations each year, with some extremely dry years and some extremely wet, it is interesting to look at the overall trend. If you look at the chart and mark how many times annual precipitation reached 800 mm during the first three decades of the 1900s and then compare that to the last three, it is easy to see that what used to be something of a rarity is now normal. Since the mid-1960s, there has been one year when the annual precipitation didn’t add up to over 800 mm. And if you look at the extreme years – the highs are getting higher. What we would consider a “normal” amount of precipitation now would have been an extreme during those first three decades.
People whose livelihood depends on the weather tend to remember the extreme years. In conversations with people this summer, the drought of 1988 comes readily to mind. It was the only year that we actually took extreme measures to try and beat the drought with an irrigation gun, learning that it takes a lot of irrigating to come close to a good rainfall. While the drought in this local area may not show up on this chart, the low rainfall in that year does show up – but what is interesting is that the low precipitation in that year falls right around the 800 mm mark – a precipitation level that used to be a high.
Predicting the weather is one thing, using what we know about the weather to make better decisions is another. As I was considering whether to sell our wheat straw or blow it back on the field, I came across a recommendation by Peter Johnson published in the Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine (http://ontariograinfarmer.ca /2012/07/01/cropside-whats-straw-worth/). While we know that higher organic matter is better for soil health, his quantification of this is helpful. “Removing the straw from three wheat crops will reduce the soil organic matter (OM) by about 0.1 per cent. That doesn’t seem like very much. But 0.1 per cent OM will hold nearly one inch of water.” In a dry year like this one, an extra inch of water is a big deal. So if you still want to sell that straw – you better replace it with manure or some other form of organic matter.
As we see the long-term, 100-year trend of higher precipitation and more extreme events, we can use that information to make decisions on how we manage our land and cropping practices. Anything that helps us slow and store surface water will help reduce the impact of severe storms and flash flooding in the spring. Conservation tillage, using rotations that include cover crops, conversion of agricultural land with low moisture retention capacity to other uses, planting windbreaks, shelterbelts, and hedgerows, agro forestry, and increasing forest cover in headwater areas, river valleys, flood plains, and streams can all make a difference.
If you’re really interested, you can donate to help the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority complete projects aimed at reducing erosion on the Middle Maitland River and the Garvey Glen. The Middle Maitland Headwaters Restoration Project involves reforestation and stormwater management projects in the headwaters of the Middle Maitland watershed upstream from Listowel. The Maitland Conservation Foundation supports these projects and can be reached by contacting Maitland Conservation Foundation by phone at 519-335-3557 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org ◊