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Perhaps more than anyone else, farmers and fishermen in Atlantic Canada spend their lives keeping an eye on the weather. They have to, since weather conditions can make or break their livelihoods. For many of them climate change is already forcing them to change what they do, how they do it and what the future brings.
Frozen fields, scorched soil
and ice-clogged waters
If the late frost in June of 2018 was an example of the wild swings of climate change, William Spurr has had quite enough.
Spurr works with his father, sister, brother and cousin at Spurr Brothers Farms in Melvern Square, north of Kingston, N.S.
The heavy frost, which was more of a freeze, took a heavy toll on the mixed-crop farm, which has been in the family for five generations, since 1875.
Crops were in the ground at a reasonable time, and it was looking like the potential was there for a very good year, Spurr said. Potatoes were higher than they normally were.
When the frost warning came out, he started working a piece of machinery that hills the soil up around the plants to try to protect them.
“At 2 a.m., I saw the plants already starting to turn black, so that's when I went home. I woke up in the morning and it was really cold.”
Touring the farm, he found blackened potato plants and apple blossoms.
About 28 of the farm’s 80 hectares of potatoes were damaged, and 85 per cent of the 40 hectares of apples lost their blossoms.
Then, the weather turned really hot.
“It was way too hot for potatoes,” he said. For growing, the plants like temperatures of 20 C to 22 C, but they shut down if the mercury reaches 30 C.
“There are usually one or two days of that and then they recover, but we got weeks of that,” Spurr said.
That left 16 hectares with sun scald, which he and his father had never seen before.
Then, the fall was very wet, which claimed more acreage. Combined, the farm had just over half its normal potato yield.
The frost also cost the farm about a third of its small strawberry crop. Some of that was frost damage, while the rest was from birds. Spurr said cedar waxwings got into the surviving plants because the frost knocked out their regular berry food source.
He said the birds had never bothered the strawberries before last year.
“It wasn’t a great year overall, but it helps that we’re diversified,” he said. “Nothing did great, a couple of things did very bad, but we had some others to help us along.”
A LATE FROST
Many East Coast farmers lost up to 50 per cent of some crops in early June, 2018 when a late frost saw temperatures dip to -2 C just days after 28 C temperatures had given some plants a growth spurt.
(Source: local media reports)
While Spurr had to deal with late frost and scorching heat, ice is the problem on fisherman John Gillett’s mind.
On the water for 50 years, Gillett has focused mainly on crab for the past 20, steaming out of Twillingate, N.L.
He says within the past few years harvesters are seeing more ice from the Arctic in Fishing Area 3K.
“The ice the last five or six years has been shocking,” he said.
This can take a financial toll on harvesters, keeping many from setting their pots earlier in the crab season, thus giving them less time to catch their quota by the time the level of softshell increases in June.
Sometimes, Gillett says, the ice can delay you for as long as a whole month, from when the season starts in April.
And there can be other difficulties once you manage to get on the water.
About three years ago, Gillett recalls how he lost about 200 crab pots due to the ice.
A FARMING REGION
In 2016, there were 7,493 farms and close to 3.4 million acres of farmland in Atlantic Canada.
(Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
“I went out, not a pan of ice in sight, and I put out my gear,” he explained. “When I went out the next day, the ice chart didn’t show any ice within 25 or 30 miles, but I couldn’t get within nine miles of it. 200 pots gone just like that, never seen them no more.”
Then there’s the damage the ice can do to your boat and to your gear — add it up and it’s all an extra financial burden on fishermen.
When it comes to ice, Gillett is more interested in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans taking the increased ice of recent years into account when they open the crab season.
He’s less interested in what’s causing the ice conditions. In fact, Gillett is skeptical that there’s anything especially unique happening with climate change.
“To me, there’s always been climate change,” he said.
He says he’s gone through old diaries of Newfoundlanders from a hundred years ago and he finds unusual weather patterns back then as well.
“It’s just a little glitch in the climate,” he concluded.
SOURCE OF JOBS
In 2015, Atlantic Canadian farm operators employed 19,673 people
(Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
4 FACES FROM THE FRONTLINES
Extreme weather wake-up calls
“Our biggest challenges with climate change is the extreme weather events that we’re seeing over the last number of years,” says Victor Oulton, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture and a mixed livestock farmer and butcher from Windsor, N.S.
The federation represents about 2,400 members.
As an example of the extremes facing Atlantic Canadian farmers, Oulton pointed to early June 2018, when the Maritimes were hit with an unusually hard frost which severely damaged fruit crops like strawberry and blueberry and others like potatoes, corn and even Christmas trees in some areas.
That disaster was a wake-up call for many farmers, said Oulton.
“I think as farmers maybe we get complacent in thinking that stuff isn’t going to affect us. But I think that (frost) and other extremes over the past few years have kind of woken everybody up a little bit,” said Oulton.
A warmer growing season could mean Atlantic Canada farmers will be able to grow crops here that they have traditionally not been able to or they could get bigger yields of their traditional crops.
With sea levels expected to rise due to climate change in the coming decades – up to 75-100 cms by 2100 in some areas – authorities are looking at ways to protect coastal infrastructure.
But the trade-off is that the area is also looking at more severe storms and unpredictable weather. The number of high heat days over 30 C is also expected to increase and that brings its own negative impacts on growing crops.
“Climate change is going to affect us – for good or bad,” Oulton said.
Trying to assess climate change is hard when it seems there’s conflicting information, says Jerome Ward, co-ordinator for the North of Fifty-Thirty Association (NOFTA) on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula.
While harvesters believe climate change has an impact on the fishery, he said they feel frustrated that they can’t get sound information from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the degree of these impacts.
“There’s no question about it that climate change does have some impact but there’s too much unknown to say what impact,” he said.
He says fishermen are skeptical that all species fluctuations can be attributed to climate change.
For instance, caplin has seen a downturn in recent years off the Northern Peninsula. In 2017, there was hardly any caplin but this year they’re seeing a slight rebound.
He says fishermen believe there could be other factors at play, such as increased predation, that make it hard to quantify climate change’s impact.
“Fishermen have a job to accept this because there’s so much in the food chain depending upon caplin,” he said. “The seals (for example) are growing fast.”
However, Ward does believe cooler ocean temperatures and heavier ice, in recent years, can directly be attributed to climate change.
He says ice breaking off from the melting Arctic has been making its way south along the Labrador Current and has been cooling ocean temperatures off the province in the spring and early summer.
The federal Department of Fisheris and Oceans is responsible to maintenance of 1,008 harbours (e.g., wharves, breakwaters, buildings) in Atlantic Canada, valued at approximately $5.6 billion.
“It’s got to cool off the ocean, especially in our region,” he said. “Global warming has many different effects in many different ways.”
Temperature changes can affect the habitats for different species and Ward wonders how you maintain a temperature that creates optimal spawning conditions for certain species like cod or northern shrimp.
Both of these species thrive in colder temperatures but Ward is concerned about what happens if the temperature drops too far.
THE PERILS OF UNPREDICTABILITY
P.E.I. farmer Matt Compton is used to the family business changing to meet challenges and changing trends.
The family farm in in Summerside was primarily focused on dairy and livestock prior to the early 2000s when they shifted heavily into U-Pick and wholesale strawberries and mixed vegetables. Compton now runs Compton’s Vegetable Stand and Very Berry Patch in the summer and a snow-clearing operation in the winter.
As a farmer, trying to cope with what climate change may do to your operation is a challenge, particularly with the varying predictions.
Take rain for example. Multiple studies predict more precipitation for Atlantic Canada in coming years.
When the Compton family first invested in strawberries Compton remembers losing several days per season to rain. These days that’s happening less often.
“I always remember Mom and Dad talking about dry spells. It doesn’t matter where you are you’re going to have dry spells … but I think they’re getting a little longer,” he said.
The biggest threats come from things you can’t plan for, the out-of-the-blue extreme weather events.
The early June frosts of 2018 that caused havoc with growers across the region are the type of extreme weather events that scare him about climate change.
If his strawberry plants had been just a little more advanced than they were when the frost hit, he would have been wiped out for the season.
ATLANTIC FISHING STATS FOR 2017
(N.S., P.E.I., N.B. N.L. Quebec)
15,150 registered fishing vessels.
Total volume of landings: 641-393 metric tonnes.
Total value of landings $3,399,107,000)
It’s that unpredictability that is the real challenge, particularly if you’re trying to plan out where your farm operation should go in the future.
“If you’re in any industry it’s hard to think 20 years down the road. It’s damn near hard enough to survive the season next year with not just climate changes, but market changes, employment and finding help nowadays,”said Compton.
“To look 10 years down the road and say ‘should we be growing strawberries, or grain or corn next year because in 10 years we don’t think we’re going to be able to?’ Let’s survive 2019 and hope we’re going to get to 2020.”
HOW WARM IS TOO WARM?
It seems homarus Americanus (American lobster) are liking the warming waters in the North Atlantic.
Record catches are being landed by fishermen, particularly in southwestern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy, where the landed value have been topping the $500 million mark annually since the 2013-14 season in some areas.
“We see fluctuations in temperatures but the trend is up from 20 years ago. It’s nowhere near as cold,” said Bernie Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association. “Twenty-five years ago, the inside boats would have two or three weeks of decent fishing (at the season start in late November) … then the cold weather would shut them down and the traps would be coming ashore. You don’t see that now.”
Berry said he thinks the warming trend has helped the survivability of lobster larvae and that is reflected in the catches in the last 20 years.
“The only thing is it can go too far and I think we’re starting to see that in the lower extremity of our lobster stocks,” said Berry.
In the waters off the northeastern U.S. “the stocks are actually getting very poor down there. Scientists think because of the warming trend but there’s other stuff at work down there, too, like pesticides in water run-off from whatever. Larvae can only survive in so warm a temperature. It can get too warm and the survivability of lobster larvae decreases again.”
Right now, current temperatures seem to be good news rather than bad for Canadian lobster fishermen.
“We’re in a sweet spot,” Berry said. “(But) It can get too warm. There is a worry. If this trend continues who knows where we will be in 20 to 50 years down the road?”
WETTER AND DRIER
(N.S., P.E.I., N.B. N.L. Quebec) The Coupled Global Climate Model (CGCM 3.1) model predicts slightly wetter springs, but drier summers by 2010 to 2039 across Atlantic Canada, as well as a shift to earlier crop seeding and maturity times.
(Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
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