Global warming a boon and a bane for Fraser Valley farmers

Warmer summers and milder winters could help local farmers grow new crops.

A tractor plows a dry field on Sumas Prairie. Warmer and drier summers could help growing conditions for some crops

A tractor plows a dry field on Sumas Prairie. Warmer and drier summers could help growing conditions for some crops

It’s 9 a.m. on an early summer morning, and on a Sumas Prairie field, tractors kick up billowing clouds of dust as they plow into the Fraser Valley’s rich but bone-dry soil.

The nearby highway is still clogged with morning commuters, but the temperature is already climbing towards 30 C.

This land has been profitable ever since Sumas Lake was drained in the early 1900s, and in its soil now grow berries and corn and vegetables and turf. The same occurs across Abbotsford – in Matsqui, Bradner, Glen Valley and elsewhere – where hundreds of millions of dollars worth of vegetables, fruit and livestock form the base of the local economy.

But as the dry weather continues and temperature records topple, the question now is whether growers adapt and thrive, or will they and their crops wilt under the sun?

•••••

The climate is essentially Mother Nature’s weather odds-maker. It can’t guarantee that you won’t have to use your umbrella in July, but climate trends tell you how likely it is to rain and, if so, how much is likely to fall.

However, those odds aren’t the same as when farmers were planting their fields 40 years ago.

Whether or not you agree with the scientific consensus that human activity is the cause of the change, the local climate has indisputably warmed over the past half-century.

The average high August temperature between 1961 and 1990 was 23.6 C. Since 1990, average August temperatures have dipped below that mark just once. The average temperature in the 30 years ending in 2010 was 0.7 C higher than in the 30 years preceding 1990.

And while yearly precipitation averages haven’t changed much, more of that rain is falling during the winter months, while summers are significantly drier.

Warming temperatures can have myriad effects on the way the climate behaves, and potentially on the odds of extreme weather events and droughts. But even at its simplest – warmer and drier summers – climate change could have a profound effect on local agriculture.

•••••

The Fraser Valley has a rich agricultural history that predates European arrival.

Before Simon Fraser ever set foot in the valley that would one day bear his name, the Sto:lo people maintained large patches of berries and edible roots.

Since the arrival of Europeans, rapid changes in immigration patterns, technology, trade and global tastes have all dramatically influenced the agriculture that currently dominates the Abbotsford area. Those forces will continue to shape what is grown here, but they have now been joined by a changing climate. And while other areas struggle to adapt, Abbotsford is one one of the relatively few places on Earth that might benefit from an altered climate.

In his first state of the city speech in late June at Tradex, Mayor Henry Braun reminisced about skating on an ice-covered Mill Lake in his youth and speculated that warmer temperatures could benefit local farmers.

“I think we’re going to be able to grow some crops that we haven’t [previously] been able to grow here,” he said.

Nine kilometres to the west, Masa Shiroki has been testing out that theory for several years now.

Shiroki grows four hectares of rice on land leased from Bakerview Ecodairy. It’s used to make artisan sake, or rice wine.

Four years into his project, Shiroki says the warmer it gets, the higher his yield, and thus the more profitable and sustainable his small business becomes.

“I think even a degree higher on average … makes a big difference to us,” he said. “Global warming helps us.”

•••••

From Africa, which has seen dramatic desertification, to the Western United States, which is currently undergoing a severe drought, extreme weather and warmer global temperatures have largely been a bane on farmers worldwide. But what has hurt growers in California’s Central Valley, where large irrigation-dependent producers grow much of North America’s produce, might be good for farmers in the Lower Mainland, according to the University of the Fraser Valley’s Tom Baumann.

“We have a great opportunity,” he says.

From sweet potatoes to semi-tropical fruit trees, warmer summers and winters could make a range of new crops farmable on a large scale.

“I see great potential in the vegetable industry, especially since California is drying up so fast,” Baumann said, noting that prices could rise as farmers there struggle.

Milder winters would be great for fruit trees that are damaged by extreme fluctuations in temperature, while hotter summers would also help.

On the same day that Braun was speaking, Singletree Winery held its grand opening in Abbotsford, joining Mt. Lehman Winery and Lotusland Vineyards. Hotter weather, Baumann said, would increase the sugar content in grapes and help the burgeoning local wine industry.

But while Baumann says a changing climate is probably a net positive for the region, it will also bring challenges for both growers and governments.

Ensuring crops get enough water is the most obvious challenge. The Fraser Valley’s relatively small size compared to its bountiful water resources mitigates some of the risk.

“We here in the Fraser Valley are so incredibly lucky that we have water galore,” Baumann said, although he warns that “We could overdo it with the use of water and draw on our reservoirs too much.”

The availability of water isn’t something to be taken for granted, however. This year’s dry, hot spring and early summer have forced farmers to rely on irrigation, the water from which originates either from wells that tap aquifers or from drainage ditches that use water pumped in from streams and rivers that feed into the Fraser River. Fortunately, within the last decade a government program encouraged farmers to dig deeper drainage ditches and increase their irrigation capacity.

“We would be dead in the water if that hadn’t happened,” Baumann said. “Our winters are getting wetter and our summers are getting drier, so we have to do both – drain and irrigate.”

A 2015 report on agricultural water demand suggests that “in an extreme climate scenario,” demand for water would be nearly twice as high as in 2003, which was one of the driest on record.

And while more hot, dry summers will be good for some crops, others may suffer.

Speaking in late June, Baumann noted that cranberries, in particular, were at risk of developing leaf burns because of the record heat. Peas aren’t in their element either, because of how early the summer heat hit. Carrots  and onions are also at risk.

The berry industry, he says, has also had to deal with the fact that harvests, generally staggered over weeks and months, are having to be picked and packaged within a tighter time frame.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada cites both positive and negative effects from climate change, but warns that “warmer summers could also cause problems for livestock producers related to heat-wave deaths. This is especially true in poultry operations.”

Meanwhile, dairy and beef farm operations face issues posed by hotter, drier weather, which shortens the growing season for hay and other feed crops, or requires immense amounts of irrigation.

Much of the future outcomes in agriculture depends on just how much the region and the rest of the world warms.

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change says a moderate increase in temperature – between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius – above 1990 levels will be good for some areas and harmful for others. But that same panel says temperatures could rise anywhere between 1.4 and 5.5 degrees Celsius. Change at the upper end of that spectrum could have such an effect on global economies and infrastructure as to mitigate any local benefits.

Still, Baumann is hopeful that at this point many of the issues can be overcome.

“We’re adjusting to it quickly,” Baumann continued. “I believe our agriculture has the knowledge to deal with all of these things, and if you look at it overall, if the forest doesn’t burn up around us, in agriculture, we have a fantastic chance to be even better than we are now.”

Just Posted

Photo by Dale Klippenstein
Death of man found on road in Abbotsford now deemed suspicious

Body found May 8 on North Parallel Road was initially labelled hit-and-run

A pair of rare peregrine falcons have returned to their nesting site at an Abbotsford quarry, resulting in increased concerns from opponents about their safety. (PHOTO: #savebcfalcons Instagram page)
Concerns escalate about rare peregrine falcons as blasting set for Abbotsford quarry

Opponents worried after birds return to nesting site at quarry on Quadling Road

Todd Richard sings “Green and Blue” as HHSES students get ready to belt out the chorus during the school’s Music Monday on May 3. He is currently in the running for a top 100 spot in the 2021 Toyota Searchlight competition. (Adam Louis/Observer)
Top 100 bound?: Harrison country artist Todd Richard vies for Toyota Searchlight prize

First round ends on May 20, votes can be submitted every day

The Abbotsford Law Courts (John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
Abbotsford man sentenced second time for sexual offence involving child

Bradley Roan Smith, 60, was previously convicted in 2016 of sexual interference

The mighty Fraser during freshet on May 2, 2021 at Island 22 Regional Park. A new B.C. coalition representing 25 organizations, and 273,000 people, is calling on B.C. to reverse decades of wildlife and habitat declines. (Jennifer Feinberg/ The Chilliwack Progress)
Coalition calls on B.C. to invest in wildlife stewardship and habitat protection

Representing 25 organizations, and 273,000 people, they seek to reverse decades of declines

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Brian Peach rescues ducklings from a storm drain in Smithers May 12. (Lauren L’Orsa video screen shot)
VIDEO: Smithers neighbours rescue ducklings from storm drain

Momma and babies made it safely back to the creek that runs behind Turner Way

Signage for ICBC, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, is shown in Victoria, B.C., on February 6, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
$150 refunds issued to eligible customers following ICBC’s switch to ‘enhanced care’

Savings amassed from the insurance policy change will lead to one-time rebates for close to 4 million customers

Lorna Seip touches up the mural on the wall at MRSS, working with students from the Rainbow Club. (Neil Corbett/The News)
Rainbow club puts message of inclusion at Maple Ridge School’s main entrance

Maple Ridge secondary grad says SOGI symbols are powerful

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read