Extreme heat and drought in Western Canada are destroying the food system

“In many cases it is past the point of no return. There will be acres in Western Canada where there will be no crop, no yield.”

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Todd Lewis was driving on Highway 6 south of Regina on Friday morning, looking out the window at fields that just didn’t look right. The canola flowers should be in full bloom at this time of year, to the point where the fields look almost fluorescent.

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“All this should be a bright yellow,” said Lewis, head of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

Instead, the fields were more green and brown. After weeks of devastating heat and drought in western Canada, many of the canola flowers have withered in the sun, he said. Without that flower, the rapeseed plant will not produce a pod. And without a pod, there are no lucrative canola seeds to crush into oil or export around the world. They’re just empty stems.

“There are a lot of crops that are in decline right now,” says Lewis, who grows canola, grains, and legumes on his farm in Gray, Sask. “In many cases it is past the point of no return. There will be acres in western Canada where there will be no crop, no yield.”

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His best bet right now is that crop yields in Saskatchewan will drop 25 percent from last year. If the plus-30 degree heat continues as predicted, those losses could be as high as 50 percent.

“That’s billions of dollars in revenue,” he said.

Continued record heat, droughts and wildfires in the prairies and British Columbia this month are wreaking havoc on food production in Canada, with farmers reporting stunted crops, cherries cooking on trees and 80 percent deaths from some commercial shellfish operations.

Burnt pastures leave farmers with little for their livestock to graze, forcing them to delve into winter fodder supplies and consider shrinking their herds by sending livestock, even prized breeding cows, to the slaughter.

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“If we don’t have water, and if we don’t have food, there isn’t much choice, is there?” said Lewis. “It’s that desperate.”

Counties have encouraged grain farmers to harvest their stunted crops for feed now. The Saskatchewan Department of Highways has even begun to remind farmers that grass in the ditches along roads may be hayed for free on a first-come, first-served basis.

“It’s too hot for almost all of our crops,” said Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, BC. “We really need to take climate change seriously because these kinds of temperatures, they’re not viable.”

Agriculture ministers from across Canada met on Thursday to discuss the developing drought crisis, among other things. Federal Agriculture Secretary Marie-Claude Bibeau said she urged her colleagues from the Prairie Provinces to honor Ottawa’s pledge to increase compensation rates to 80 percent for the government’s AgriStability payments to cover production losses.

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“My heart goes out to those farmers and ranchers,” she said in a statement. “I committed to work closely with the provinces to assess the need to activate flexibility in our programs to respond to these extreme weather events.”

After a heat dome and another separate week of unusually warm weather, some crops are left behind on July 15, drying up in fields like this barley field south of Edmonton.
After a heat dome and another separate week of unusually warm weather, some crops are left behind on July 15, drying up in fields like this barley field south of Edmonton. Photo by Shaughn Butts/Postmedia

In BC, when temperatures rose above 40°C earlier this month, shellfish farmers reported major losses in their stocks of Pacific oysters and mussels. Due to the combination of extreme heat and extremely low water, the crops stood on the beach for hours.

“In simple terms, it cooks them,” said Jim Russell, executive director of the British Columbia Shellfish Growers’ Association.

The oysters opened up in the relentless heat and “opportunistic shrimp” came in to clean them, so there was nothing left but shells, he said.

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“We’re just trying to quantify the magnitude of the losses … Oysters and mussels together, it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.”

One growing area, in Okeover Inlet, reported an 80 percent death rate. The biggest problem is that many shellfish farms operate on three-year cycles, so deaths at that level across all age groups in the farm mean “you’re basically out of business for three years,” Russell said. “It’s really a hit for these people.”

About 400,000 chickens in the province also died from the extreme heat — about 10 percent of BC’s total production in two weeks.

The fruit industry in BC is also expected to take a big hit as the heat made the berries mushy, forcing farmers to sell them for jam. Apple trees have also lost leaves in the heat, which could affect yields later in the season, said Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist with the federal department of agriculture.

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“Again, a very anomalous event,” he said.

It’s common for parts of Canada to experience challenging weather during the growing season, but this month’s heat and drought have hit each of the provinces in an intense way.

Manitoba experiences a once-in-50-year weather event, while Alberta faces a once-in-20-year event, Hadwen said. Saskatchewan mainly tends to the levels of Alberta, although parts are closer to the levels of Manitoba.

Along Highway 6 on Friday morning, an hour north of the Montana-Saskatchewan border, Todd Lewis spotted the thin fields.

Being able to see between the stems isn’t a good sign, he said. The cereal crops should be lush and green — Roughrider green — he said.

But when he passed by in his half-ton truck, the brown flashes suggested the tips were starting to burn. He was concerned about the young farmers who had just started.

“It’s getting a little bit worse,” he said.

• E-mail: [email protected]

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