By Kate Procter
As the snow melts and spring creeps, or sometimes rushes, across the land, farmers prepare for the frantic season ahead. The windows of opportunity to get stuff done are filled with never-ending motion.
Stress runs high and everyone hopes they have thought of every possible way to make the spring work flow as smoothly as possible.
No two springs are ever the same – moisture, freezing temperatures, heat, wind all come in different ways in slightly different times to make it impossible to predict how the season will go. Even fields that are a couple of miles apart can have very different rainfall amounts, which lead to different results at the end of the year. All the planning and preparation in the world doesn’t make up for too much rain, or too little. Or rain at the wrong time.
It may seem hard to believe, but I’ve heard that in some places, people don’t even talk about the weather and think it odd if the topic comes up! These places must surely have weather that is the same from day to day, without seasonal fluctuations or life altering weather events.
But around here, especially among farmers, it is odd if the weather doesn’t make up a major part of the conversation. As I listen to comments and opinions on the weather, it quickly becomes apparent that our memories tend to be selective. The extreme events stand out, but for the most part, we forget if there isn’t a good way to keep track and keep the information in front of us and we are definitely not that great at tracking how things are changing over time.
I find it interesting to look back at long-term weather patterns. A cooperative effort between groups in
the U.S. and Canada produces an annual detailed study of the Great Lakes basin. The chart that I find most interesting in the report shows long-term trends in precipitation. When people suggest that the climate is not changing, I think of this chart. The most recent report shows a chart that covers a period from 1892 to 2020 and shows how the precipitation varies from the mean for that period.
• https://mrcc.purdue.edu/pubs/docs /GL-2020_Climate-trends-and-impacts-summarySummary.pdf
Looking at the data this way reveals how much the precipitation varies and also includes a trend line of the nine-year averages for that 100-year period. From the about the mid-1960s, it seems obvious that the precipitation patterns have changed. While there are still dry years, there are many more years that are wetter than the mean. This pattern appears to have reversed from the period going back to the late 1890s. The extremes are more extreme and the long-term trend is showing more annual precipitation than there used to be looking back from 1965 to 1892.
A report published in 2003, “Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region” predicted what
changes would be in store for us. Considering that the report is now 20 years old, I thought it would be interesting to see how many of their predictions proved to be accurate. I did not read all of it but one thing that jumped out at me was a less favourable impact on agriculture than had been suggested in the past. This is due, in part, to predicted changes in precipitation. “Wetter periods are expected during times that could delay harvest or planting, and dry spells are projected during times when crops
• (https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/ default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warming/greatlakes_final.
From my own experience, which admittedly isn’t a great yardstick, I would say this prediction is coming true. I use the example of putting soybeans in the drier, which becomes a necessity when the fall is wet and we can’t harvest beans dry. When I asked older members of our crew how often they dried soybeans in the past – the reply was “never”. Now, it’s increasingly common. Harvesting beans that were too dry used to be a bigger concern, but that has never happened since I’ve been doing it. Corn hybrids have been bred to tolerate drought but how much attention has been paid to adapting to wetter conditions, which is what we are experiencing here.
The report also predicted new pests and diseases would become a bigger problem. “Crop losses may increase as new pests and disease become established in the region and as warmer, longer growing seasons facilitate the buildup of larger pest populations. Already the range of the bean leaf beetle, a pest of soybeans, appears to be shifting northward.” It seems as if every year brings new diseases migrating northward – western bean cutworm, first detected in Ontario in 2008 and tar spot are two recent examples.
Extreme weather events are also becoming more common, as anyone working in the insurance industry will tell you. Family friends living near Ottawa lost every building on their farm during the “derecho” wind event that occurred in late May. Winds reached 190 km per hour in that storm, which killed 10 people across Ontario and Quebec. The city of Ottawa had to replace 200 damaged hydro poles, a feat that would normally take six months. Prior to that, I thought a tornado was the worst wind event we had to worry about here.
Can humans reverse or even slow climate change? That is a big question and beyond the scope of this
column. There are many changes we can make in order to try. In my little corner of the world, I am making some changes personally, but also trying to focus on how to manage water, making our field operations as efficient as possible, and hoping that as humans, we can work collectively to sort this out before it is too late. ◊