Farmers grapple with dry summer
By Angelica Ingram
August 16, 2016
The summer weather has been loved by many, with the scorching hot temperatures and sun-filled days packing local beaches, lakes and cottage country stores.
However, the humidity and lack of rain hasn’t been welcome news for all, as the drought and constant heat advisories are proving difficult for local farmers who are battling the elements.
One such farm is McLean Berry Farm, a favourite at Haliburton County Farmers’ Market locations.
Situated just outside of Buckhorn, the farm includes two large properties, measuring 99 acres and 187 acres (respectively), said farm market manager Erin McLean.
McLean has lived on the farm since she was five, as it is owned and operated by her family.
Working on the farm full time since 2009, and part time during the summers prior, this year stands out in her mind.
“This is the driest summer that I can remember since we’ve been farming in the last 26 years,” she said. “We’ve had dry summers before, that’s just the reality of farming, but the combined very high temperatures and extended lack of rainfall combined with a lack of snow cover and drier fall last year have compounded to make this year the driest seasons we’ve had that I can remember.”
The farm specializes in a variety of crops, including corn, raspberries, beans, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash and their popular everbearing strawberries.
The crops, particularly strawberries, are bearing the brunt of the weather, with the edges of fields suffering, the growing season shortened and fruit being smaller than usual.
“Just because they don’t have the water to size them up,” said McLean, in regards to the size of fruit this year.
The lack of rain is having a tremendous impact, said McLean, with the farm’s ponds, which are used for irrigation, drying up.
“We’re running out of water really, really quickly,” she said. “We’ve had minimal rain for months.”
The silver lining of the dry weather is that the fruit that is being produced is very, very sweet, as the sugar is concentrated.
“What we have is a really great quality, it’s just a matter of keeping things alive right now,” said McLean. “We’re trying to find solutions to keep things healthy.”
In addition to the lack of rain is the issue of extreme heat, with more hot days on record.
The irrigation system in place at McLean Berry Farm particularly targets the berries, as they require a lot of water. Although there have been heavy thunderstorms throughout the region this summer, McLean says those events don’t produce the type of water source that is very beneficial for farming.
“A heavy dramatic rain that comes fast and furiously may show that we’ve gotten rain, but it does little to help because it just runs off and can’t be absorbed, especially by the dry soil,” she says. “What we really need is at least a few days of a gentle, steady rain that is really able to soak in and get down to the roots which desperately need water.”
In Minden, Andrew Graham of Graham’s Farm Market has had similar issues battling the weather, but fortunately has an irrigation system that covers the six acres of his property that he farms.
“If we didn’t invest heavily in irrigation previously we wouldn’t have anything right now,” said Graham.
“But the drought’s very beneficial in regards to how we feed our plants ... which is through highly nutritious water. So they’re able to soak that up readily and then with all the sun they just grow.”
Producing more than 20 types of fruits and vegetables, including zucchini, kale, cantaloupe, watermelon and more, Graham has been farming his family’s land for the past three years.
Graham says during the past two years he hardly used his irrigation system, because he didn’t have to.
“I’ve got more use out of it this year than the past two years combined, easily,” he says.
He likes having the control over how much water his plants get and when.
Graham said adapting is a big part of being a farmer, as so many things are beyond your control. For instance this summer, which has turned out to be a hot one, started with a late frost in June.
In the family for generations, the farm sells most of its produce through area farmers’ markets, Abbey Gardens, its CSA baskets and its farm gate.
While Graham doesn’t keep track of rainfall from year to year, his cousin does, inheriting the skill from Graham’s uncle, Phil Graham (who used to track weather for the Echo’s sister publication The Minden Times).
Senior climatologist for Environment Canada, Dave Phillips makes a living out of tracking things like rainfall from year to year.
While it’s obvious to everyone that it’s been a hot and dry summer, the statistics may be alarming.
“The dry and the warm has been consistent,” he said. “I would say, generally speaking it’s about 120 millimetres short of what you would normally see at a period from May through Aug. 10.”
Phillips said while that number shows you it’s been dry, it’s been even drier due to the extreme heat we’ve been experiencing this summer.
“Sometimes it’s not the double whammy,” he says. “In this case the demands for the precipitation that has fallen has been great. Every bead of moisture’s being sucked up by the very dry atmosphere and by the warm air.”
Phillips said it’s more difficult to track if this has been the hottest summer on record, as temperatures are averaged throughout different periods of the day, (that being morning, noon and night). Because we were still experiencing cool temperatures in the evenings in May and June, the results are a bit skewed.
What he does know is this summer has seen more days hit temperatures higher than 30 degrees Celsius that usual.
“You [the area encompassing Haliburton County] had three times as many hot days as you would normally get,” he said. “You had about 15 of those, where typically you would have five, in a regular period from May 1 to Aug. 10.”
Aside from having more hot days than normal, they have been hotter than just 30 degrees, sometimes hitting 33 or 34 degrees.
Phillips says most of the weekends have been dry and warm, resulting in great beer drinking weather. The weather has also been consistent, with fewer cooling off periods.
“That’s one of the characteristics of this summer ... so anybody taking their holidays for a week or two weeks or a month has really not been left out in the cold ... we’ve all benefited from this, some a little more than others.”
Looking ahead to the fall, he says the area will see more of the same, with a dry and warm fall season. This could result in less vibrant fall colours, as the trees will be stressed.
A media release from AccuWeather echoes those predictions, with senior meteorologist Brett Anderson saying rainfall will remain below average for the upcoming season, affecting fall foilage.
“Lack of rainfall and resulting stress to trees over eastern Canada could result in an early leaf fall this upcoming season, which means some early colour, but not as colourful or sustained as it normally is during peak times later in the season,” said Anderson in the release.
Trees won’t be the only ones stressed, as some are keeping their eyes glued to the forecasts, hoping for grey skies ahead.
“We’re just keeping an eye on the forecast and hoping something changes soon because it’s affecting a lot of people,” said McLean. “It’s really quite serious and makes you realize how important rain really is.”