By Keith Roulston
As I write this in early July, I’ve just had several days staying indoors because of smoke from forest fires in northern Ontario and Quebec.
Being retired, I have the choice to avoid the smoke. Many farmers, not to mention contractors, etc. have jobs that require them to be out of doors despite the smoke. There are only so many days before winter weather arrives, by which time crops must be harvested and much outdoor construction completed.
This is an unusual year for forest fires. From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, nearly every province is facing forest fires — something I don’t recall experiencing in my seven decades. Smoke hasn’t affected southern Ontario many times that I can remember, let alone millions of Americans across the border.
I can only remember one occasion when forest fire smoke interrupted our life when I was a child. We were visiting my uncle in Kincardine one Sunday afternoon when the sky turned pink and yellow and the air smelled smokey. By the next day it was gone rather than hanging on.
Apparently we need to get used to this problem, say environmental experts. Climate change is going to bring more fire events in future, though just when is beyond prediction. At the same time we’ve had flooding in other areas.
It’s been a tough summer here, too, so far. As this is written, our area has had about a half-inch of rain in the last month. This past weekend we had no more than a few drops, yet to the south they had day-long rains.
I will probably lose some readers with the mention of climate change. Despite expert opinion, many, including many farmers, are sure that so-called climate change is just year-to-year variation.
Recently, I read the novel The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. Like John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath, it tells the torturous story of the drought that accompanied the Great Depression across the grain-growing regions of the U.S. (and the Canadian prairies). That drought started in 1930 and lasted for nearly a decade. Many farmers from Texas to Nebraska lost their farms and moved to California where they competed against each other for lower and lower wages from large landowners.
But those Depression years came long before modern lifestyles could have changed the climate. Yet emigrants, land speculators, politicians and even some scientists believed that homesteading and agriculture would permanently affect the climate of the semi-arid Great Plains region, making it more conducive to farming. They were horribly wrong.
People changed how they farmed after the drought of the Depression years, especially after adopting soil- saving plans promoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But a century later, will we forget the lessons learned back then? Recently I saw that many Alberta farmers have been hit hard from drought and don’t expect harvestable crops. Luckily, they will be helped by crop insurance, one of the great advances in that century. Can they afford insurance if we end up having a lengthy drought?
And how about the millions elsewhere in the world who have come to depend on food from North America? Large as our weather problems are, they can be worse.
Apology to the chickens: In my column last month I spoke of smelly manure spread on fields around our house. I blamed it on chickens, since the spreader appeared to travel to a nearby chicken farm. But a neighbour called me after the column appeared to correct me. Truckloads of compost were dumped on the back corner of the farm to be spread on the land, he told me. My stinky problem actually came from a pile of sewage from an urban community. So don’t blame the chickens. ◊