Todd Lewis was driving down Highway 6 south of Regina on Friday morning, looking out the window at fields that just didn’t seem right. The canola flowers are supposed to be in full bloom at this time of year, to the point that the fields look almost fluorescent. “All this should be 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 canola plant doesn’t 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’s a lot of crop that’s going backwards right now,” said Lewis, who grows canola, cereal grains and pulses at his farm in Gray, Sask. “In many cases, it’s beyond the point of no return. There’ll be acres in Western Canada that will have zero crop come off, zero yield.”
Sustained 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, cherries cooking on trees and 80-per-cent mortality rates at some commercial shellfish operations.
Burnt pastures have left ranchers with little for their cattle to graze, forcing them to dip into winter feed stocks and consider shrinking their herd by sending cattle, even prized breeding cows, to slaughter.
“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, B.C. “We need to get really serious about climate change because these kinds of temperatures, they’re not viable.”
Agriculture ministers from across Canada met on Thursday and discussed the evolving drought crisis, among other things. Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she urged her counterparts from the Prairie provinces to match Ottawa’s pledge to raise compensation rates to 80 per cent for the government’s AgriStability payments to cover production losses.
In B.C., as temperatures rose above 40 C earlier this month, shellfish farmers reported major losses in their stocks of Pacific oysters and clams. The combination of extreme heat and extremely low tides meant the crops were left exposed on the beach for hours at a time.
“In simple terms, it cooks them,” said Jim Russell, executive director of the British Columbia Shellfish Growers’ Association.
The oysters popped open in the unrelenting heat and “opportunistic shrimp” moved in to clean them out, so there was nothing left but shells, he said.
Roughly 400,000 chickens in the province also died due to the extreme heat — about 10 per cent of B.C.’s two-week total production.
The B.C. fruit sector is also expected to take a significant hit, since berries turned mushy in the heat, forcing farmers to sell them for jam. Apple trees have also lost leaves in the heat, which could impact yields later in the season, said Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist at the federal agriculture department.
Manitoba is experiencing a once-in-50-year weather event, while Alberta is facing a once-in-20-year event, Hadwen said. Saskatchewan mainly leans toward Alberta levels, though parts 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’s not a good sign to be able to see between the stalks, he said. The cereal crops are supposed to be luscious and green — Roughrider green — he said.
But as he passed by in his half-ton truck, the flicks of brown suggested the tips were starting to burn. It made him worry about the young farmers just starting out.
“It’s getting a little bit worse all the time,” he said.
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