Recent imagery of flooding farms in B.C. could make it easy to forget the drought conditions in Western Canada earlier this year. 

The “very dry” summer has cattle owner Brett Rumpel hoping for snow this winter so she can keep feeding her herd without emergency supplies.

A woman with blonde hair, a black blouse and blue pants with white stripes leans against a rustic fence

Brett Rumpel is a cattle owner in Craven, Sask. (contributed photo)

Rumpel said the dry conditions in recent summers have been a challenge for her family’s farm in Craven, Sask.  She said a bounty of snow this winter would be much needed moisture at Rumpel Farm. 

“It was a pretty tough year and with our corn itself the hail tore it to shreds,” Rumpel said, adding the crop wasn’t able to reproduce quick enough to be used for grazing or silage. 

“We had the hail, we had the heat and then another rain again which caused a lot of the plants that had been hit by the hail damage to actually start rotting,” Rumpel said  

While Rumpel is able to feed her 200 cattle, other farmers in the drought stricken region are relying on support through an emergency hay program. Organized by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, the Hay West 2021 program is helping farmers in Western Canada feed their herds while attempting to avoid a mass cull of livestock. 

To support hay deficit in the West this year, farmers in other parts of Canada are donating their excess crop.

The emergency aid will be coming from places like Marsh Farm in Poplar Grove, N.S. operated by Tim Marsh who is also president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. He said there was an estimated 20,000 surplus round bales in his province. 

“We’re a very small proportion of what Northern Ontario to Alberta needs,” Marsh said adding the industry is also struggling in other parts of the continent.

Tackling climate change on the farm

While conditions meant there was no shortage of hay in Nova Scotia in 2021, Marsh is concerned about the nutrition of his soil. 

Derek Lynch is a Professor of Agronomy and Agroecology at Dalhousie University studying the role of soil in tackling climate change on farms. He said “soil has a huge role” in adapting to instances like drought or erosion during intense rainfall, but also mitigating climate change.

A man with little hair is wearing a black jacket over a brown sweater on top of a blue shirt in front of a tan brick wall.

Derek Lynch is a Professor of Agronomy and Agroecology at Dalhousie University (contributed photo).

Reducing tillage can help mitigate climate change by building a carbon sink according to Lynch. At the same he said improving soil health can make adapting to conditions as a result of global warming easier.

“You don’t need to be storing large amounts of soil carbon to get a shorter term soil health benefit,” Lynch said.

Lynch said soil health means feeding fields a “good diet” of organic matter to build structure. “What that does is it adds to the water holding capacity of the soil and adds to the resilience of soil to high rain fall events.” [infogram id=”report-1hzj4o3wo88ro4p?live”]

According to data from The Government of Canada agriculture accounted for about 8 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. 

A reduction in beef production between 2006 and 2011 reduced methane emissions enough that  the Canadian sector achieved a rating of 81, or desired, on the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Index. However, the rising use of nitrogen fertilizers are setting crop production records but also increasing the sector’s nitrous oxide emissions which has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

In the fields farmers like Marsh and Rumpel are decreasing tillage and storing carbon in their soil.  “You gain and the planet gains as well,” Marsh said.

Meanwhile in Winnipeg, Audrey Logan is also leaving the plow behind among other monoculture practices. The Indigenous Elder is using permaculture techniques while growing a community garden in the West Broadway neighbourhood.

A woman wearing red scarf over a purple shirt with black pants is sitting in a chair in her garden

Audrey Logan interviewed in her garden for a video by Kis Kin Ha Ma Ki on Youtube.

While farmers in her province will be receiving emergency hay supplies due to drought, Logan said permaculture is already adapted to less water.

“We water once a year,” Logan said. 

Logan has been producing food for herself and others for over a decade using permaculture techniques that are found in communities across the globe. “Many other groups are still doing these things, there’s just not a lot of attention paid to them, ” she said.

“Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, peanuts, cotton. A whole myriad of food we commonly eat is actually First Nations cultivation,” Logan said adding she picked up the practices through stories that were shared openly.

Logan said “common sense” can help answer questions like when do you know the sap is running? “Well obviously you watch the squirrel…When the squirrel start’s nibbling on the bottom of the branch that’s because he’s checking for the sap.”

Nonetheless, sap ran less in Quebec as a result of global warming this year. The shorter and warmer sugaring season is contributing to maple syrup emergency supplies being tapped into amid a seasonal shortage. 

Another example of climate change making itself known in our food production. Looking toward the future young farmers like Rumpel are focused on mitigating and adapting to the issues.

Rumpel said key questions to ask are what crops will be like in the future and what can grow where. “Because obviously we saw this year that our canola did not produce very well because of the heat and how is that going to look 10 years from now if it’s even hotter?”

While tackling the issue in the fields, Rumpel said farmers are not the only culprit in terms of climate change.  She said “we can’t put the biggest blame on agriculture when there are other players at the table.” 

Looking forward