It’s 9 a.m. on an early summer morning, and on a Sumas Prairie field, tractors kick up billowing clouds of dust as they plow into the Fraser Valley’s rich but bone-dry soil.
The nearby highway is still clogged with morning commuters, but the temperature is already climbing towards 30 C.
This land has been profitable ever since Sumas Lake was drained in the early 1900s, and in its soil now grow berries and corn and vegetables and turf. The same occurs across Abbotsford – in Matsqui, Bradner, Glen Valley and elsewhere – where hundreds of millions of dollars worth of vegetables, fruit and livestock form the base of the local economy.
But as the dry weather continues and temperature records topple, the question now is whether growers adapt and thrive, or will they and their crops wilt under the sun?
The climate is essentially Mother Nature’s weather odds-maker. It can’t guarantee that you won’t have to use your umbrella in July, but climate trends tell you how likely it is to rain and, if so, how much is likely to fall.
However, those odds aren’t the same as when farmers were planting their fields 40 years ago.
Whether or not you agree with the scientific consensus that human activity is the cause of the change, the local climate has indisputably warmed over the past half-century.
The average high August temperature between 1961 and 1990 was 23.6 C. Since 1990, average August temperatures have dipped below that mark just once. The average temperature in the 30 years ending in 2010 was 0.7 C higher than in the 30 years preceding 1990.
And while yearly precipitation averages haven’t changed much, more of that rain is falling during the winter months, while summers are significantly drier.
Warming temperatures can have myriad effects on the way the climate behaves, and potentially on the odds of extreme weather events and droughts. But even at its simplest – warmer and drier summers – climate change could have a profound effect on local agriculture.
The Fraser Valley has a rich agricultural history that predates European arrival.
Before Simon Fraser ever set foot in the valley that would one day bear his name, the Sto:lo people maintained large patches of berries and edible roots.
Since the arrival of Europeans, rapid changes in immigration patterns, technology, trade and global tastes have all dramatically influenced the agriculture that currently dominates the Abbotsford area. Those forces will continue to shape what is grown here, but they have now been joined by a changing climate. And while other areas struggle to adapt, Abbotsford is one one of the relatively few places on Earth that might benefit from an altered climate.
In his first state of the city speech in late June at Tradex, Mayor Henry Braun reminisced about skating on an ice-covered Mill Lake in his youth and speculated that warmer temperatures could benefit local farmers.
“I think we’re going to be able to grow some crops that we haven’t [previously] been able to grow here,” he said.
Nine kilometres to the west, Masa Shiroki has been testing out that theory for several years now.
Shiroki grows four hectares of rice on land leased from Bakerview Ecodairy. It’s used to make artisan sake, or rice wine.
Four years into his project, Shiroki says the warmer it gets, the higher his yield, and thus the more profitable and sustainable his small business becomes.
“I think even a degree higher on average … makes a big difference to us,” he said. “Global warming helps us.”
From Africa, which has seen dramatic desertification, to the Western United States, which is currently undergoing a severe drought, extreme weather and warmer global temperatures have largely been a bane on farmers worldwide. But what has hurt growers in California’s Central Valley, where large irrigation-dependent producers grow much of North America’s produce, might be good for farmers in the Lower Mainland, according to the University of the Fraser Valley’s Tom Baumann.
“We have a great opportunity,” he says.
From sweet potatoes to semi-tropical fruit trees, warmer summers and winters could make a range of new crops farmable on a large scale.
“I see great potential in the vegetable industry, especially since California is drying up so fast,” Baumann said, noting that prices could rise as farmers there struggle.
Milder winters would be great for fruit trees that are damaged by extreme fluctuations in temperature, while hotter summers would also help.
On the same day that Braun was speaking, Singletree Winery held its grand opening in Abbotsford, joining Mt. Lehman Winery and Lotusland Vineyards. Hotter weather, Baumann said, would increase the sugar content in grapes and help the burgeoning local wine industry.
But while Baumann says a changing climate is probably a net positive for the region, it will also bring challenges for both growers and governments.
Ensuring crops get enough water is the most obvious challenge. The Fraser Valley’s relatively small size compared to its bountiful water resources mitigates some of the risk.
“We here in the Fraser Valley are so incredibly lucky that we have water galore,” Baumann said, although he warns that “We could overdo it with the use of water and draw on our reservoirs too much.”
The availability of water isn’t something to be taken for granted, however. This year’s dry, hot spring and early summer have forced farmers to rely on irrigation, the water from which originates either from wells that tap aquifers or from drainage ditches that use water pumped in from streams and rivers that feed into the Fraser River. Fortunately, within the last decade a government program encouraged farmers to dig deeper drainage ditches and increase their irrigation capacity.
“We would be dead in the water if that hadn’t happened,” Baumann said. “Our winters are getting wetter and our summers are getting drier, so we have to do both – drain and irrigate.”
A 2015 report on agricultural water demand suggests that “in an extreme climate scenario,” demand for water would be nearly twice as high as in 2003, which was one of the driest on record.
And while more hot, dry summers will be good for some crops, others may suffer.
Speaking in late June, Baumann noted that cranberries, in particular, were at risk of developing leaf burns because of the record heat. Peas aren’t in their element either, because of how early the summer heat hit. Carrots and onions are also at risk.
The berry industry, he says, has also had to deal with the fact that harvests, generally staggered over weeks and months, are having to be picked and packaged within a tighter time frame.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada cites both positive and negative effects from climate change, but warns that “warmer summers could also cause problems for livestock producers related to heat-wave deaths. This is especially true in poultry operations.”
Meanwhile, dairy and beef farm operations face issues posed by hotter, drier weather, which shortens the growing season for hay and other feed crops, or requires immense amounts of irrigation.
Much of the future outcomes in agriculture depends on just how much the region and the rest of the world warms.
The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change says a moderate increase in temperature – between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius – above 1990 levels will be good for some areas and harmful for others. But that same panel says temperatures could rise anywhere between 1.4 and 5.5 degrees Celsius. Change at the upper end of that spectrum could have such an effect on global economies and infrastructure as to mitigate any local benefits.
Still, Baumann is hopeful that at this point many of the issues can be overcome.
“We’re adjusting to it quickly,” Baumann continued. “I believe our agriculture has the knowledge to deal with all of these things, and if you look at it overall, if the forest doesn’t burn up around us, in agriculture, we have a fantastic chance to be even better than we are now.”