Metro Morning

Irrigation 'a real godsend' for farmer as very dry conditions grip Toronto area

A Toronto-area farmer says he has had to run his irrigation system 12 to 14 hours a day because of severe drought conditions this year.

Fruits, vegetables 'fabulous' this year due to sunshine, but lack of rain a concern for next year

Mike Whittamore, owner of Whittamore's Farm in Markham, Ont., says he has been running his irrigation system 12 to 14 hours a day due to dry conditions in the Toronto area. (CBC)

A Toronto-area farmer says he has had to run his irrigation system 12 to 14 hours a day because of very dry conditions this year.

Mike Whittamore, farmer and owner of Whittamore's Farm in Markham, a 90-hectare farm north of Rouge National Urban Park, told CBC's Metro Morning on Tuesday that members of his family are used to the sound of the irrigation system now.

"I get up at five in the morning and all they hear is the dull roar of a 200-horsepower diesel motor running 12 to 14 hours a day pumping the water to keep all the crops alive," he said Tuesday.

"It's been relentless. We ran it 50 days straight. We have an extensive irrigation system to manage the water for all our crops, which has been a real godsend for us this year, particularly."

Geoff Coulson, a meteorologist with Environment Canada in Toronto, said Tuesday the Toronto area is experiencing very dry conditions this summer.

"We didn't break a record, but it is certainly much drier than last year," he said. 

Coulson said much of the rain that the city has received in the past three months has been scattered, isolated showers or bursts of rain. This year, Toronto has had 45 per cent of the normal amount of precipitation that it usually receives in May, June and July.

Toronto received 34.2 mm of rain in May, 26.4 mm in June and 39.8 mm in July, for a total of 100.4 mm. The city's long-term average amount of precipitation, calculated by looking at the period from 1981 to 2010, is 221.5 mm for those three months.

The Ontario Natural Resources Ministry, through its Surface Water Monitoring Centre in Peterborough, Ont. has determined that water level in Toronto is at Level 1, defined as "the first indication of a potential water supply problem, managed through water conservation." 

Farmers under stress

In comparison, Prince Edward County and north of the county in the Belleville area, east of Toronto, has a water level determined to be at Level 3 — the most serious — defined as "water supply fails to meet demand, managed through water conservation, restrictions and regulation of water use."

Don McCabe, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and a corn, soybean and wheat farmer in Inwood, Ont., said the shortage of rain is affecting all crops in the province, with the exception of winter wheat, which got the water it needed in May. The OFA is an organization that represents more than 36,000 farm families in Ontario.

"Everything in the growing stages is under stress," he said.

McCabe said irrigation is very expensive and the majority of Ontario farmers rely on rain, not on irrigation, to grow their crops.

"It's a very stressful situation. This is stressful for all farmers. Nobody needs this kind of stress," he said.

"We are hoping like hell that it's going to rain."

Rain has been 'very spotty'

Whittamore, who runs a pick-your-own farm, says his crops of fruits and vegetables are "fabulous" because the area has had much sunshine this growing season, but without irrigation, the plants would be struggling. The soil where it has not been irrigated is dry and cracked. 

"It's been a dry year. It's very, very spotty. We are looking for all-day rains now," he said.

Whittamore said the concern is not so much for crops this year but for next year because of a deficit of moisture in the soil. Perennial crops, including apples, raspberries and strawberries, could suffer next year if more rain is not in the forecast.

"Toronto got three inches of rain from a storm last week. We got nothing," he said, even though his farm is about 16 kilometres from downtown Toronto.

"It will rain at some point. It always does."