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David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, says while there will be benefits to a warmer climate, there will also be drawbacks and disadvantages. (Photo: David Phillips)

Warmer, Drier Climate with Plenty of Variability

Farms with continued success are those willing and able to implement change.

Since there is no immediate “fix” for the weather, Canadian potato farmers have to be ready for change and be adaptable, advises David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

The climate is changing. Although it may not seem like it during specific weather events – exceptional rainstorms and severe cold snaps – evidence predicts climate over the coming years will be warmer and drier. That will mean changes.

“The farms that will continue to have success will be those that are willing and able to change,” says Phillips. “While there will be benefits to a warmer climate, there will also be drawbacks or disadvantages. Farmers will need to be adaptable to these changes, and Canadian farmers have demonstrated they are very good at adapting.”

Although Phillips made the remarks at the Alberta Potato Conference in November, he says his comments are applicable to agriculture in general.

Over the past 70 years, Canadian temperatures have warmed 1.5 C to 1.7 C. And over the next 50 years, it could warm by 2.5 C to 3 C. The warming trend could put Western Canada on par with the current climate and growing conditions of Nebraska and Iowa. Ontario and other parts of Eastern Canada could see growing conditions similar to Kentucky. Overall, on the plus side, the models show the warming trend will result in longer growing seasons. While warmer is generally good, on the downside it is also expected to be drier.

“And farmers are already learning to adapt,” says Phillips. “Over the past 20 years we’ve already seen many adapt their operations to special crops such as corn, soybeans and potatoes, and begin having success with these crops where they weren’t grown before.”

The warming trend of the coming decades will push the production boundaries of many of the warm season crops even further north. It will mean a longer frost-free growing season, higher levels of carbon dioxide – positive for crop production – and for livestock producers, milder winters will mean less stress on cattle.

On the downside, a warming climate could encourage more weed growth. It can also increase or change the complex of crop diseases and insect pests. Warm temperatures can increase heat stress on crops and also lead to drier or drought conditions.

As the climate trends toward warmer and drier, producers can also expect extreme weather events. Hailstorms may be more intense, and there will be sudden and heavy rainstorms, hot dry spells and cold snaps.

“We’re already seeing extremes,” says Phillips. “Some farmers have told me, depending on their location, they could have used both drought and flood insurance in the same year. This millennium started out with some very dry years – particularly in Western Canada – between 2001 and 2003. And now the last five or six years have been extremely wet. It is hard to find a ‘normal’ as it has either been too dry or too wet. And the fact of the matter is that we haven’t seen anything yet. We’ve seen changes over the past 20 years and there will be even more over the next 100 years. The key will be in adapting and diversification.

“With this Jekyll and Hyde weather, the normal will be to expect the unexpected, and that can be tough,” he adds.

In adapting to change, Phillips says it will be important for the industry to rely less on fossil fuels to reduce C02 emissions; it is the policy of the federal government, it is what the consumer/public is demanding, and it is also what competitors in the world are already doing.

Soil and water conservation measures, to conserve moisture and help sequester carbon dioxide, will continue to be important. As drier conditions settle in, more farmers may have to consider irrigation systems and, along with that, more water storage reservoirs will be needed to hold moisture when it does come.

Phillips also says crop research and development will also need to focus on developing more varieties with improved drought tolerance and other characteristics.

Weather forecasting technology continues to improve, and it also may be useful for farmers to look for site-specific weather forecasting to help them be better prepared for isolated and severe weather events. “We can’t just depend on a forecast from the local airport,” says Phillips.

Remote sensing technology using satellites and drones can be used to better monitor field and weather conditions over individual farms.

“The message is that there will be changes galore,” says Phillips. “Learning to manage those changes and learning to adapt will be the key. I am bullish on agriculture and its ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

Phillips’ message about the potential for changing climate is already being heard by potato growers across the country.

“It is something we are very concerned about here in P.E.I.,” says Alex Docherty, P.E.I. Potato Board director and past chair. “Most of our growers rely on snow melt in the spring, as well as timely rains during the growing season to produce a crop. There is very little irrigation. And it is all about yield. You can’t sell tops, you need the moisture to produce the potato yield.”

Docherty, who farms near Charlottetown, says farmers are already experiencing variable conditions. Some parts of the island this year, for example, had very good moisture and other parts were dry. On Docherty’s own farm, the clouds opened up with the heaviest downpour in about 200 years, yet a few miles away they got hardly anything. “This past year we had only two inches of snow by December in some areas, compared to two years ago we had a total of 18 feet during the winter.”

With about 90,000 acres of potatoes grown in P.E.I., as dry conditions persist, he says more farmers may have to consider irrigation systems; however, the government has a moratorium on high capacity wells, specifically for agriculture. “Until that changes, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature,” says Docherty. Other important opportunities include crop research and development that may produce improved heat and drought resistant varieties. “But, that all takes time,” he adds.

Many Ontario potato growers already felt the wrath of climate change this summer. “It was the hottest and driest year in 100 years – it was relentless,” says Eugenia Banks, potato specialist with the Ontario Potato Board.

Dry conditions take a tremendous toll on yield. The year started out with a cool May, and crop emergence was delayed in some areas by three weeks. And then it turned dry and hot. About 65 per cent of growers do have access to irrigation, the other 35 per cent do not.

“A healthy crop of potatoes needs an inch of rain per week,” says Banks. “That adds up to about 16 inches of rain from May through August. Environment Canada data shows prime potato growing areas such as Norfolk, Simcoe and Dufferin counties sustained more than a 60 per cent water deficit. Norfolk County was the hardest hit, with only about four inches of rain at Delhi all season.”

While quality was pretty good in some areas, overall yields were down about 50 per cent in non-irrigated crops and 35 per cent on irrigated land.

Banks says while growers managed production to the best of their ability, as more dry seasons persist, farmers will have to look more at irrigation options, and hopefully improved drought-tolerant varieties will be developed.

With region-by-region variability, Manitoba potato growers manage for variable growing conditions, says Dan Sawatzky, general manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association.

All farmers producing potatoes for the processing market do operate with irrigation, he says. Over the past couple of decades, farmers have been installing tile drainage systems to deal with seasons of excessive moisture. A growing number of farms, producing Manitoba’s 65,000 acres of potatoes, may use both – depending on the season.

“Farmers have been adapting their production systems to deal with the variance in weather for several years,” says Sawatsky. “It is going to vary region to region, depending on soil type. But water management – either dealing with too much or too little – has been a prime concern for growers for 20 years. Depending on the situation, we are seeing irrigation and tile drainage used.”

As the project manager for research, Jay Anderson with the Potato Growers of Alberta says a warmer, drier climate will require changes in grower management. Alberta produces about 53,000 acres of potatoes – mostly for processing, with some for the fresh table market – with about 10,000 acres also dedicated to seed production.

“Earlier springs the last couple years have meant farmers have been able to plant potatoes earlier,” he says. “But that also means a longer growing season. And for those producing for the process market, potato size is important. The longer the growing season may mean larger potatoes, which may not meet processor specifications. So it will require that crops are desiccated to stop growth, so they can be harvested at the proper size for processing.”

Most of the potatoes grown for the five major potato-processing plants in southern Alberta are produced under irrigation. A warmer, drier climate could reduce the winter snowpack in the mountains, which in turn could affect how much water is stored throughout the irrigation network in the region. So that has potential to increase the emphasis on irrigation reservoir capacity and improved water use efficiency.

Anderson says developing new potato varieties with improved drought and heat resistance is important, but at the same time it has to be done in consultation with processors who prefer specific varieties with specific characteristics for specific end-use markets.

“As new varieties are developed, they will need to be something processors actually want and can use, to produce the product they require,” he says.

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