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Eastern Canada’s sweltering weather leaves farmers’ season an open question

Eight-year-old Samantha McKeon cools off at Nathan Phillips Square as temperatures soar in Toronto on July 16, 2013.


With the Humidex reaching into the 40s in some parts of Eastern Canada this week, climatologist David Phillips doesn't feel the summer's severe weather is a good measure of the growing season farmers can expect, because it's very localized.

Some weather systems hit in your backyard and not your front yard, explains Mr. Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. Conditions have been very different between regions: On the weekend, parts of Saskatchewan saw grapefruit-sized hail and dramatic winds, and on Tuesday, tornadoes touched down. While the hail flattened fields of crops, Mr. Phillips described the tornadoes as weak and small. "They had many more last year and yet they had a good crop year," he said.

Mother Nature hit parts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes with sweltering heat this week, and there will be no respite as the Humidex reaches into the 40s in Toronto and Montreal over the next few days. Last week, there were record-breaking rainfalls and floods in Toronto, but the surrounding area, from Hamilton to Windsor, saw between two to nine millimetres of rain.

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For organic farmer Martha Gay Scroggins, a changing climate means preparation is in order.

"The first thing to consider is that it's an ever-changing climate, therefore whatever you're growing, you have to be adaptable to that change," said Ms. Scroggins.

This year's heavy rain and severe heat have created the perfect conditions for weeds and insects to proliferate. That means longer hours for some organic farmers.

Ms. Scroggins has been an organic farmer for 35 years, and this year "we have more weed and more disease pressure." The wet weather brings weeds, then insects, leaving crops open to the onset of disease.

Mike Celetti, a plant pathologist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, sees the situation as under control for the moment, but acknowledges organic produce is more susceptible to disease.

Mr. Celetti says some diseases are brought on by wet weather and the current heat and humidity in some parts of Canada will only prolong the onset of diseases.

Late blight, which was partly responsible for the 19th-century Irish potato famine, has been spotted in New York and Michigan this year. That's "close enough by that it's just a matter of time before it makes it here," he said.

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Conventional growers know if they are at high risk and will use conventional fungicides directly, but "organics are at higher risk," Mr. Celetti said. But over all, "at this point, we're looking okay," he said.

Weather creates vastly different situations depending on the crop, Mr. Phillips said. Hail can be particularly damaging. "The one profession that has been beat up by weird, wacky and wild weather has been growers because they can't get normal weather," he said. "One farmer can be bankrupt because of hail."

Growers in the Holland Marsh – known as Ontario's soup and salad bowl – in the Greenbelt just 50 kilometres north of Toronto have lost more than 2,200 acres of crops due to flooding and hail.

"Mother Nature likes to kick you when you're down," said Jamie Reaume, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers' Association. On Father's Day, less than three minutes of hail "shredded 2,100 acres" of product across a multitude of properties. That tiny weather event caused approximately half a million dollars in damage.

Holland Marsh produces 500 million pounds of mixed crops every year – five pounds of carrots and onions for every Canadian – and is one of the most productive growing areas in the country. This setback won't affect their bottom line too badly, Mr. Reaume said. "We're not going to have record-breaking crops, but we're going to have a good year."

Between Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake, they've had normal amounts of rain this year. For tender fruit growers, this weather is sweet for crops like peaches, nectarines, plums and grapes.

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"This heat and this sun – they love it," said Phil Tregunno, Chairman of the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers, referring to the crops on his 700-acre conventional and organic farm.

Although the hot, wet summer means juicier, richer flavour profiles for wine grapes and peaches at Mr. Tregunno's farm, in the organic acreage "It takes a lot of footsteps because you're checking [the crops] all the time," he said.

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