Thursday, July 26, 2012

Drought…from a plant’s perspective

1st of all... HOORAY FOR THE RAIN!!! We got an inch last night & it was so wonderful to harvest in the wet fields today. I swear I could almost feel the plants waking up & drinking deep. Hopefully this will help rejuvenate the greens, size up the carrots, and germinate the last of the fall crops.

Obviously plants need water to grow, but I wanted to take a few paragraphs to explain how the drought has been affecting agricultural crops both directly and indirectly this year. 

Many plants don’t grow above certain temperatures, preferring instead to save their energy and water underground where it doesn’t so easily get lost through transpiration.

Under stress, crops tend to shorten their own lifespan – going to seed more quickly than they would in more favourable growing conditions in order to increase their chances of reproductive survival. Especially with greens, this means the plants remain smaller, go bitter earlier, and have a shorter harvest window.

Yields are also lessened by smaller fruit and root sizes. Water is required for cell growth, so without water, crops produce less. In our fields, we’ve noticed this particularly in the carrots and cucumbers (the latter started so strong, but quickly tapered off their production – not surprising I suppose, given how much water is in a cucumber fruit!) One positive is that, although smaller, some vegetables actually become sweeter in hot, dry weather – the flavour isn’t watered down, and the starches are more effectively transformed into sugars. Carrots and tomatoes are good examples of this.

Finally, hot dry seasons create the perfect condition for many pests. This has been an intense year for beetles, caterpillars, aphids and even earwigs! Pest pressure not only decreases yields, but also affects the aesthetic quality of the crops.

Livestock farms have been severely affected by loss of pasture (imagine trying to feed a cow off your un-watered lawn!), and are concerned about how little hay has been produced – a staple food for overwintering many animals. Corn and grain yields are down – also standard livestock feed.

We’re doing our best to keep the vegetables producing and are lucky to have a deep well to draw from. One additional thing to note is that organic farms often fare better in drought situations due to the higher organic content and microbial activity in the soils (Here's one 30-yr study that demonstrates this). I'm curious if this has been the case in Southern Ontario this season.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Meeting with the Federal Minister of Agriculture

Yesterday I was able to meet with Gerry Ritz, the Federal Minister of Agriculture, on a Waterloo Federation of Agriculture's tour and Roundtable. I had 2 minutes to make a presentation at the Roundtable - here's what I said:

Submission to Hon. Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food
With our relatively high land prices but close proximity to urban markets, Ontario boasts many smaller farms which thrive based on intensive production practices and innovative business models. These farms are making important contributions as resilient businesses in the areas of production and marketing.

Need for farm policies that support smaller farms
Many farms based on smaller land bases are strong, viable businesses and contributors to national food security. Small farms have unique needs and require different programs and policies than large agri-business. A one-size-fits-all approach to setting national farm policy often overlooks the needs of smaller farm businesses.

Farm Diversification
Diverse farm operations are more stable and resilient in the face of natural disaster and economic fluctuations. Most small and organic/ecological farms are naturally diversified and therefore strong business ventures. Farm diversification should be encouraged and supported.

Innovation and Intensive Production
Small farms have been shown to have relatively high yields/acre due to more intensive growing practices. Many small-scale and ecologically-focused farmers have developed innovative business models, sustainable growing practices and appropriate technology which would benefit from further research and investigation, as there may be beneficial broader applications. There are many innovative technologies worthy of funding other than Biotech.

Loyal Markets
Supporting the development of strong, loyal markets is key to farm viability and business resilience. Many small farms are based on direct marketing models which provide a stable market base and predictable income. They benefit from strong interpersonal relationships between grower and eater, with a market deeply invested in the success of the farm venture. There is much to be learned from the strength and success of direct marketing models.

Organic and Sustainable Growing Practices
While many farms have been struggling to turn profits, the organic sector has been thriving. With growing public support for sustainable growing practices, investing in the further development and implementation of innovative organic practices would be fruitful. Funding is needed for an overdue review of the Canadian Organic Standard. Certified Organic growers depend on the integrity of this standard for public trust and international trade.

Land accessibility and financial support for new farmers
As many farmers age, there is a need for new farmers. Without inheriting land, new farmers often need capital support to access land and start-up resources.

PS At the end of the tour, Minister Ritz officially announced a 1.5 million loan for Martin's Family Fruit Farm towards the building of an apple dehydrating plant which will process apples for Martin's and surrounding farms. A local processing facility - cool!