Bumper crops possible across Canada – if Mother Nature co-operates

Despite a wonky spring, the potential exists for Canada-wide bumper crops this year, but only if fickle Mother Nature plays nice, particularly in Southwestern Ontario and the Prairies.
The corn is well past seven feet already in Andrew Campbell's fields near London, Ont. The soybeans next to it are looking pretty lush too. (Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell)

In Andrew Campbell's Southwestern Ontario field, the corn was taking on the distinct shape of a pineapple — its leaves sticking straight up in the air.

That was not good. The pineapple shape is a key sign the corn plant is under stress from drought and is not really a surprise, given how little precipitation has fallen in the area in recent weeks.

Andrew Campbell sees good prospects for the fall harvest on his Southwestern Ontario farm, but only if timely rains arrives. (Courtesy Andrew Campbell)

"Then Mother Nature looked down on us and since [last] Monday, we are approaching two inches of rain," says Campbell, a cash-crop and dairy farmer west of London.

His corn is back to looking more normal now, the hay is greening up and the soybeans are showing their healthy dark green colour again.

"Prospects are back to very good for the fall harvest, as long as these timely rains find their way back to us," says Campbell.

Campbell's experience mirrors what farmers across Canada are facing this year: the potential exists for a bumper crop, but only if fickle Mother Nature co-operates at the right time.

"Timing is everything," says David Phillips, Environment Canada's senior climatologist. "I have seen some summers where precipitation was below normal, but they still had bumper crops because they seemed to get … one inch of water in a week."

Across Canada this growing season, there are two developing stories when it comes to agriculture: how dry it has been in Southwestern Ontario, and how wet it has been on the Prairies.

"In Ontario, the big issue is dry, dry, dry," says Phillips. "If you walk around, you see the grass is like Rice Krispies — snap, crackle and pop, everything is dry."

Soil is cracked, roots haven't dug down, and precipitation totals are less than half what normally falls.

In some places, this lack of rainfall looks dire.

Seven per cent of Ontario farmland has received record low precipitation since April 1, says Trevor Hadwen, an agro-climate specialist for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Regina.

The areas around London, Guelph and Kitchener — places where farmers are growing high-value cash crops — have been particularly affected by the lack of rain.

Water lies in a small patch of Ryan Maurer's canola field near Grenfell, Sask., but growing conditions are better than they were last year. (CBC)

Head west to the Prairies, though, and the lack of rain is not a problem.

Seventy per cent of the region has received more rainfall than it normally would in seven out 10 years, and 10 per cent of Prairie farmland has received record rainfall since April 1, says Hadwen.

In general, conditions are better than last year, when flooding took a severe toll, but some areas aren't back to normal.

"There’s a lot of people in that southeastern portion of Saskatchewan that were flooded out last year that still haven't recovered and their cropland is either under water or having excess moisture this year," says Hadwen.

"It’s not to the same flood degree as last year obviously, but they're having a tremendously difficult time getting onto their fields in terms of spraying or, in some areas, in terms of seeding earlier this year."

Over the last two years, excess rain flooded out half of Ryan Maurer's crops near Grenfell, Sask.

This year, though, he's got canola in the ground, and it's looking lush and green. Still, he's cautious about how the crop could turn out.

There's still "two months of Mother Nature to contend with to get a good crop in the bin."

Ryan Maurer is cautious about how this year's crops will turn out. (CBC)

At Environment Canada, Phillips sees the potential for an "absolutely stupendous kind of year for agriculture" on the Prairies.

But there is a storm cloud looming: the potential for extreme weather.

"Alberta, normally in an average kind of year, … you'd get about 80 severe weather events. They've had 50 already and July is normally the peak month of severe weather," says Phillips.

"In Saskatchewan, they've already had probably five or six more tornadoes than they get in an entire year with hail and strong winds."

Such weather doesn't spell widespread doom, particularly because of its localized nature, but it can be devastating for an individual farmer.

"It's not as if it's something that mows down all the wheat from one corner of the province to the other, but it is an issue that can turn prosperity into bankruptcy," says Phillips. He notes, for example, that strong winds, heavy rain and hail devastated the wheat crop in a small area of Essex County in Southwestern Ontario earlier this month.

"Farmers in the same postal code can have quite different results."

B.C.'s fruit crop

Elsewhere in Canada, there is cautious optimism about how crops will fare.

In British Columbia, cold, wet weather slowed down the blueberry crop, but the sun has come out, and picking is expected to begin in mid-July, about three weeks later than normal.

"The crop's still looking good," says Debbie Etsell, executive director of the B.C. Blueberry Council.

Last year, farm gate income from blueberries, which are grown in an area from Richmond to Chilliwack, was more than $150 million – a record – and Estell says growers are expecting equal returns in 2012.

"We might even exceed that."

B.C. canola and wheat crops are expected to be above average, says Robert Boelens, a provincial spokesman for the ministry of agriculture.

Grape and vegetable crops are expected to be average, and at least average returns are forecast for apricots and peaches. Cherries, however, are another story, as a result of storm and rain damage.

"Prior to the Canada Day weekend storms, the cherry harvest was expected to be considerably better than average," says Boelens.

Now, though, the cherry harvest may only be average, or below.

Ontario's apple crop was devastated by frost after a March heat spell, but other crops have been arriving at farmers' markets ahead of schedule.

Atlantic Canada

On the East Coast, the growing season has been ahead of normal for some crops, such as blueberries and tree fruits. On Prince Edward Island, growing conditions have been good for potatoes so far

In Nova Scotia, there was an early, warm spring, which allowed many producers to seed their crops early.

"Those crops are more advanced than normal – by about two weeks," says David Burton, a soil sciences professor at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

"As long as we get adequate rain … this is looking like a fairly positive year for crop production in Nova Scotia."

Forecasts across Canada for mid-July to mid-August, a critical time for farmers, call for conditions that are warmer than normal, but Phillips expects that crops will fare well.

He knows, however, that farmers like Maurer would never publically put such optimism out there.

Growers "would never claim what I'm claiming because they know that there are some threatening clouds on the horizon with continuing droughts, with severe frosts, with untimely weather," says Phillips.

"There’s a lot that can go wrong, but right now I think given what we’ve had and what the prospects look like for the next month, I think it's looking pretty good."

With files from Cameron MacIntosh