Climate change: Warming trend brings bitter harvest to B.C. farmers

Destructive storms, pests, sea-water encroachment among threats to the sector

Bruce May, a cranberry farmer in Delta, says weird weather has become the new norm – and that’s making life difficult for farmers | Rob Kruyt

Throughout 2015, Business in Vancouver is examining the impact of climate change on British Columbia's economy. Past stories have focused on tourismforestry and winemakers

In 2014, cranberry farmers in the Lower Mainland lost around $10 million worth of crops when unseasonably warm weather in January and February, followed by a cold snap, damaged plants.

“Every year it seems like we have an unusual spring,” said Bruce May, a cranberry farmer in Delta. “We used to have more distinct patterns that were more beneficial to our crops.”

Although the damage hasn’t been as bad this year, May observed the same pattern of unusually warm late-winter temperatures followed by a spring cold snap. That kind of abrupt switch just as plants are starting to grow can cause cellular damage, May explained.

Perhaps 10 years ago, half of the farmers orchardist Greg Norton knows would have been skeptical that the climate is changing. That’s changed. 

“This isn’t a blip in the weather,” said Norton, who is a member of the BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative.

Across B.C., farmers and scientists have mapped out how climate change will affect agriculture in different regions. 

Farmers in Richmond and Delta are concerned about sea-water encroachment depositing salt on soil. A combination of sea level rise and lower spring runoff could reduce the amount of fresh water in the south arm of the Fraser River, the sole source of irrigation for the area’s farms.

Ranchers in the Cariboo could see grazing land wither under drier summer conditions and face more frequent forest fires, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture; the mountain pine beetle epidemic and resulting loss of trees has also changed spring runoff patterns in the area.

Water management is going to become more important in many regions, but nowhere more than the arid Okanagan, home to B.C.’s fruit orchards and growing winery sector.

“There will be changes, but how do we adapt?” Norton said. “That’s difficult.”

Mountaintop reservoirs

The period of warm weather that persisted through January and February this year shut down three South Coast ski resorts. 

Read: Warm B.C. winter puts focus on future forecast for less snow

But the lack of snow means something different to farmers and water management experts. The snowpack acts as a natural reservoir, holding water in the form of snow and slowly releasing it through the summer months as it trickles down into mountain streams that feed valley lakes.

Source: B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations

This year, the snowpack is down in almost every part of B.C. In the Okanagan, the snowpack is 76% of normal this year; in the Lower Fraser, it’s 26%. Vancouver Island mountains hold just 15% of normal snow levels, and that number dips to 13% for the South Coast.

As B.C.’s climate warms, reduced snowpacks could become more common, meaning that some communities may have to invest in artificial reservoirs.

“If we had no snow at all, we’d never have enough capacity to store the water for all of those water systems,” said Anna Warwick Sears, executive director for the Okanagan Basin Water Board.

Okanagan communities who get their water from lake reservoirs, such as Okanakan Lake, will be less vulnerable than those who depend on getting water from snow-fed mountain streams, according to Anna Warwick Sears, executive director of the Okanagan Water Board | Shutterstock

For farmers in Richmond and Delta, less snow on the mountains means less fresh water flowing down the Fraser during the spring growing season. Along with expected sea level rise (over the next 100 years, the B.C. government expects a rise of one metre), farmers are concerned that the amount of salt water in the Fraser River will increase. 

Because salt water is heavier than fresh water, sea water in the tidal river (called the saltwater wedge) normally sits on the bottom of the river. 

But in recent years, salt water has been rising further to the surface in the south arm of the Fraser River. Several years ago a sensor was installed to shut off the pumps when the water gets too salty

“But there are times when we need water and the only water available for us would be salt,” May said. “That would be a critical situation for us.”

Farmers are concerned a plan to dredge the south arm of the Fraser River deeper to accommodate larger cargo ships will only make the problem worse; the deeper the water, the more saltwater can flow in, May said.

“What we’re considering, and it’s going to cost millions of dollars to do it to maintain our farms, we may have to dig irrigation canals from the north arm of the Fraser to irrigate the farm fields along the south arm of the Fraser,” said Harold Steves, a Richmond city councillor and farmer.

Harold Steves on his Steveston farm | Chung Chow

Hard decisions

Adding to the confusion for farmers is that not all of the changes will be bad. Warmer temperatures could mean longer growing seasons, especially in the northeastern Peace region, where most of B.C.’s grain crop is grown. Norton, who owns a cherry orchard near Oliver in the Okanagan, is thinking about planting different varieties suited to warmer temperatures.

Read: Climate change forecast to benefit Okanagan wine industry

But it’s hard to know “when to push the button” on those new investments, Norton said. Along with warmer temperatures, more destructive weather is on the rise: Norton has experienced more frequent hailstorms, windstorms and heavy rain in the past few years.

Norton is also expecting to have to spray his crop more often this year to deal with pests like fruit flies. In the past, colder winters used to keep those populations down, but the warming trend, just as it has contributed to the mountain pine beetle explosion, has put crops more at risk from pests.

He’s considering investing in rain covers to deal with heavier rains, which can lead to fungi, rot and fruit splitting.

Extreme rains in spring are also changing the way farmers in Richmond and Delta work. Farmers can’t plant in saturated soil, and a reduction in “workable days” can lead to reduced farm productivity, said Sean Smukler, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s land and food systems faculty.

Smukler is working with farmers on improving drainage systems for their fields; that can also help with the salty soil issue. Part of his project includes a cost benefit analysis.

“It’s quite a large investment of time and money for a farmer and the question is, by putting in more drains, are they going to get a return from that.”

B.C.’s northern breadbasket

Steves is predicting B.C.’s Peace region will become more important to the province. That’s why he’s concerned about the impending construction of BC Hydro’s Site C dam, which will flood 6,469 hectares of farmland, representing 12% of the agricultural land in the Peace Valley.

For the first time in their history, Peace River farmers are considering using irrigation as the region experiences hotter, drier summers.

Ted Van der Gulik, chair of the Irrigation Industry Association of BC, has worked with farmers in the Peace region and believes that farmland in the region could rise in value.

“That is a region looking at growing other crops in the future, like vegetables,” he said. “If you start talking about higher-value crops there and include all the land that’s being flooded that has potential for agriculture, the modern mitigation [money paid to landowners] is pitiful.

“It’s the best agricultural land that we have up there that we’d be losing forever.”