British Columbia

California dreaming?: How climate change could remake B.C.'s agricultural industry

Climate change could decimate California's agricultural industry — can B.C. pick up the slack?

As B.C. gets hotter, crops grown in warmer climates would become successful here

With a warmer climate, fruits like cherries and peaches will be able to be grown at higher latitudes and altitudes in B.C. (Regina Boone/Detroit Free Press)

Can you imagine fresh avocado — from the Okanagan?

According to some climate reports, southern B.C.'s climate will be more like central California's in a few decades.

In terms of agriculture, as California grows drier and hotter, B.C. will grow warmer with longer growing seasons and less frost.

Denise Neilsen, a research scientist with the federal government's Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says there has already been a northward movement of certain fruit crops over the past 40 years with more to come.

"We expect to see, in the future, northward movement of crops like sweet cherries and wine grapes, peaches, nectarines, plums, all of those things that are less hardy," she said. 

Drought-stricken California

In the meantime, California — North America's top farming state in terms of annual value of agricultural products — has been significantly affected by drought and water restrictions. 

During California's most recent drought which began in late 2011 and ended April 2017, the government imposed mandatory water restrictions in 2015 for the first time in state history. Nearly 500,000 acres of farmland went unplanted in 2014.

In this May 2015 photo, irrigation pipes sit along a dried irrigation canal on a field farmed by Gino Celli near Stockton, California. The governor declared the years-long drought over in April 2017. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

David Geene, a cherry producer in the north Okanagan, is one farmer who has already taken advantage of the warming climate.

He has been growing cherries at increasingly higher latitudes and higher elevations than before. 

"I've been farming since 1981 and the climate is definitely generally warmer ... 40 years ago you would not have plotted cherries out in the Lavington area. In fact, 40 years ago, even plotting apples out here would be pretty high risk," he said. 

Geene says some of the areas in Washington and California that previously could produce cherries are finding their climate is getting too hot for them — leaving an opportunity for British Columbia. 

"Cherries have a narrow band of suitability. If it's too cold, they'll die in the winter or they'll freeze off in the spring. if it's too hot, the trees will be soft and poor sugar, so they have this little spectrum that they'll grow in," he said. 

Limiting factors

But while B.C. will have the capacity to grow a new variety of crops, it's unlikely the province will assume California's mantle as North America's produce powerhouse.

For one, B.C. has far less arable land than the Golden State, Neilsen says. 

"Only 4.5 percent of the province is actually available for cultivation," she said. "We're such a mountainous province, whereas California has much more land that is suitable for agriculture."

The major factor limiting B.C.'s agricultural output is the reduced availability of arable land. (CBC Hyperlocal)

Volatile weather patterns

In addition, Neilsen says climate change doesn't just mean warming temperatures — it's unpredictable weather events and more extreme weather events. 

"These are the things that prevent a crop from developing properly," she said.

For example, a perennial crop might sprout too early and be susceptible to a sudden spring frost, she said.

Or warming temperatures one year might increase the number of pests which are normally killed by cold winter temperatures. 

B.C. farmers have already had a taste of that volatility.

Berry farmers in the Lower Mainland had two years of record-breaking early harvests until a very late, wet season this year delayed crop starts significantly

"We can push our harvest period later, but we also have a much more volatile and unpredictable climate," Geene said.

Extreme weather events like flooding, sudden frosts and rapid swings in temperature can have a devastating effect on crops. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

"Last summer, for example, we had very, very warm weather in March, April through to about the middle of May and then it just got cold and showery and mucky, and we never really did have consistent summer weather pick up until some point late August ... it was really a mixed bag."

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