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Changing climate ramps up the pressure on B.C. farmers

Beet farmers in Delta are finding it more difficult to plant in spring because heavy rain saturates the ground.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Despite a rapidly changing climate, Rhonda Driediger is looking at a good crop coming in this spring on the 160-acre berry farm she runs in Langley.

But a report released Thursday cautions that climate change is pushing many of British Columbia's agricultural operations to the limit, reducing crop productivity and threatening to force many out of business.

"This report highlights a lot of the concerns of the agriculture industry in B.C.," said Ms. Driediger, a third-generation farmer who is also chair of the BC Agriculture Council.

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"As farmers we are in the business of adapting, but conditions are changing more rapidly now, at a time when both the federal and provincial government have scaled back their roles in agricultural research," she stated.

Ms. Driediger said she feels lucky, because several years ago her operation began adapting to a changing climate – but that is something not all farmers in B.C. have been able to do.

"Years ago we started to diversify in the crops that we grow, so that we have five or six crops here … That's something my parents would not have done. They had 160 acres … all in strawberries. Huge risk. We are much more risk-averse now," she said.

The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, an agricultural think tank based at the University of Victoria, says in its report that farmers all over B.C. are facing new weather-related challenges and more has to be done to help them adapt. "Certainly if things are not addressed, I don't think it's a stretch to say that we could end up in a crisis," said Erica Crawford, a research associate at the institute.

Ms Crawford wrote the report with Rachelle Beveridge, a PhD candidate at UVic.

"I do feel this is an urgent issue and decisions made in the next five to 10 years will have significant implications for our ability to adapt to climate change," Ms. Crawford said.

The report says wetter springs, a continued warming trend, and extreme weather events are all changing the nature of farming. It calls on the government to develop better policies to help farmers, saying more agricultural research is needed, as is a new model for crop insurance.

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"One of the things the crop-insurance system was not designed to deal with is the frequency of impacts that are happening and will increasingly happen," Ms. Crawford said.

She said insurance is designed to deal with one-off, catastrophic crop failures. But farmers now face incremental losses over several years.

"Those smaller impacts fly under the radar more and those are the ones that chip away and become more problematic," she said.

Greg Norton, who runs Okanagan Harvest, a 25-acre cherry farm near Oliver, said he's seen dramatic changes in the weather from when he was a child.

"We always used to get rain in June, but it was short. Now when we get the cherry monsoons, it doesn't quit until July. That's unheard of," he said.

And Mr. Norton said big wind storms, which leave the fruit bruised, are also occurring more often and with greater intensity. "This climate change thing is real," he said.

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Brent Kelly, a beet farmer in Delta, said it is raining more in the spring, making it more difficult to plant because the ground gets saturated and equipment can't get into the fields.

"When I was a kid we used to plant in April, nine years out of 10. Now, rarely," he said.

Nancy Chong, a blueberry farmer in the same area, said those rains are also plaguing her.

"In the past you could have days of rain. Now we see weeks of rain," she said. "From a blueberry perspective, it's horrible."

Ms. Chong said sea-level rise is also a concern, because in low-lying Delta, good farmland could get damaged by salt water.

"We need government to do diking in preparation for this," she said. "That's not something farmers can do."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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