Extreme heat and drought in Western Canada wreak havoc on the food system

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“In many cases, it’s beyond the point of no return. There will be acres in western Canada that will have no harvest, no yield ”

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

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“It should all be bright yellow,” said Lewis, head of the Saskatchewan Farmers Association.

Instead, the fields were greener and browner. After weeks of devastating heat and drought in Western Canada, many canola flowers have withered in the sun, he said. Without this flower, the canola plant does not produce a pod. And without a pod, there are no lucrative canola seeds to grind into oil or export around the world. These are just empty stems.

“There are a lot of crops going down right now,” said Lewis, who grows canola, grains and pulses on his farm in Gray, Sask. “In many cases, it’s beyond the point of no return. There will be acres in western Canada that will have no harvest, no yield.

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His best guess, at this point, is that crop yields in Saskatchewan will drop 25 percent from last year. If the heat above 30 degrees continues as expected, these losses could reach 50%.

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

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Record-breaking heat, droughts and wildfires across the Prairies and British Columbia this month are wreaking havoc on food production in Canada, with farmers reporting stunted crops, baked cherries on trees, and rates 80% mortality in some commercial shellfish farms.

Burnt pastures left ranchers with little to graze for their livestock, forcing them to tap into winter feed stocks and consider downsizing their herd by sending livestock, even prized breeding cows, to the land. ‘slaughter.

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“If we don’t have water, and if we don’t have food, there isn’t a lot of choice, is there? Lewis said. “That’s how desperate it is.”

The provinces are encouraging grain farmers to start harvesting their stunted crops for animal feed now. The Saskatchewan Highways Department has even started reminding ranchers that grass in ditches along roads is free for haymaking 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, British Columbia. they are not viable.

Agriculture ministers from across Canada met on Thursday and discussed, among other things, the evolving drought crisis. Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she urged her counterparts in the Prairie provinces to honor Ottawa’s commitment to increase compensation rates to 80% for the government’s AgriStability payments in order to cover production losses.

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

After a dome of heat and another distinct week of unusually hot weather, some crops are stunted and dry in fields like this barley field south of Edmonton on July 15.
After a dome of heat and another distinct week of unusually hot weather, some crops are stunted and dry in fields like this barley field south of Edmonton on July 15. Photo by Shaughn Butts / Postmedia

In British Columbia, as temperatures exceeded 40 ° C earlier this month, shellfish farmers reported significant losses in their stocks of cupped oysters and clams. The combination of extreme heat and extremely low tides meant crops were left exposed on the beach for hours.

“Put simply, he cooks them,” said Jim Russell, executive director of the British Columbia Shellfish Growers’ Association.

The oysters split open in the relentless heat and “opportunistic shrimp” entered to clean them, so only shells remained, he said.

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“We’re just trying to quantify the extent of the losses… Oysters and clams together, that would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in loss.”

One growing region in Okeover Inlet reported an 80% fatality rate. The biggest problem is that many shellfish farms operate on three-year cycles, so fatalities at this level in all age groups on the farm mean “you are effectively bankrupt for three years,” he said. Russell said. “It’s really a success for these people.”

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

British Columbia’s fruit sector is also expected to take a hit as the berries have become mushy in the heat, forcing farmers to sell them for jam. Apple trees also shed leaves with the heat, which could impact yields later in the season, said Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture.

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

It is common for parts of Canada to experience harsh weather conditions during the growing season, but this month’s heat and drought has hit every province intensely.

Manitoba experiences a single weather event every 50 years, while Alberta experiences a single weather event every 20 years, Hadwen said. Saskatchewan leans primarily toward Alberta levels, although parts of it are closer to Manitoba levels.

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

It is not a good sign to be able to see between the rods, he said. Cereal crops are supposed to be succulent and green – Roughrider green – he said.

But as he passed his half-ton truck, touches of brown suggested the tips were starting to burn. This made him worry about the young farmers who were just starting out.

“It gets a little bit worse all the time,” he said.

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