Quirks & Quarks

Prairie farmer says he's 'pretty much gambling' with unstable conditions — made worse by climate change

In a documentary from Winnipeg-based producer Tom Jokinen, we look at how tech-savvy farmers and academic scientists are working to adapt to changing conditions on Prairie farms.

Climate change still a 'very touchy subject' among farmers, Korey Peters says

Korey Peters grows grain, corn, soybeans and other crops on a 2,225-hectare farm near Landmark, Man. (Tom Jokinen/CBC)

This is the third in a series of Quirks & Quarks stories on how science and technology are working in regions and communities across Canada facing unique challenges of climate change. 

A farmer on Canada's Prairies says "farming is pretty much gambling," and that gamble is becoming more difficult as climate change increases the unpredictability of the region. 

Korey Peters, who runs a 2,225-hectare farm near Landmark, Man., where he grows grain, corn, soybeans and other crops, said he's seeing an increase in weather extremes.

"Up until about two years ago, '15 and '16 were really wet, and then '17 and '18, it got really dry. And we had huge cracks in our field again, and that was something I hadn't seen since I was a kid. So there's definitely ups and downs."

Farming has never been easy in the Prairies, but it is becoming more difficult as farmers struggle with unstable conditions, fluctuating growing seasons, erratic weather and ecosystem shifts.

While there have always been "weather extremes," they're becoming more frequent and intense, said Karin Wittenberg, former dean of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at the University of Manitoba.

"If you talk to the average producer here in Manitoba, I think there's a recognition that climate change is real.... Dry conditions, wet conditions, cold conditions, those ranges of conditions that they're trying to grow crops and livestock can influence a lot of the decisions they make in the shorter terms."

What's happening here in Manitoba, it's affecting air quality and it's affecting the ability of crops to ... produce.- Karin Wittenberg

"Some years, it's the smoke from wildfires that are affecting our crops. What's happening here in Manitoba, it's affecting air quality and it's affecting the ability of crops to photosynthesize and to produce, so when we talk about climate change it's a pretty broad range of things."

In 2018, Manitoba produced 1.58 million tonnes of soybeans, or 22 per cent, of all the soybeans grown in Canada, according to the provincial government. However, last year, only 14 per cent of soybeans came off the fields due to high temperatures starving the plants of water. 

Advances in agricultural technology have helped to ease some of the guesswork on farmers as they try to deal with weather extremes, says Peters, who owns Herbsigwil Farms, pictured here. (Tom Jokinen/CBC)

"We didn't think we would get the yield in the end. We were kind of right, kind of wrong," Peters told CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks.

"The crops' quality was not that great. It's not worth as much money. Then, we had a downpour. It was a struggle."

Technology a saving grace

But climate change could provide benefits to Prairie farmers, too. It could add a month of frost-free growing to the farm calendar and the increase in overall average temperatures could be opportunities for farmers to grow more heat-loving crops, such as corn and soybeans, according to a 2018 report.

The question is whether unpredictable weather will allow them to take advantage of that longer, hotter growing season.

Advances in agricultural technology have helped to ease some of the strain — and guesswork — on the region's farmers as they try to deal with these weather extremes. Most tractors and combines now come with iPads and sensors, which can record data from the variety of plants in a field and create detailed maps of growing areas, Peters said. 

Peters, his dad and brother work on the farm's combine. (Tom Jokinen/CBC)

"With the beauty of modern technology, I think we're beginning to make more educated guesses," he said. "Every farmer has about five or six apps on their phone, trying to help [them]."

Another potentially powerful — but controversial — tool in the farmer's toolbox may be a type of genetic engineering known as CRISPR, Wittenberg said, adding that it can be used to insert specific genetic material into the DNA of an organism to create hardy super-crops.

"We are looking at warmer winters here in Western Canada and looking at longer growing seasons. [This is] an opportunity for insects [and] pests to become more successful," she said. 

CRISPR promises to be a new kind of precise genetic engineering that might be safer and more socially acceptable than what's been done in the past. It would make it possible to do small and subtle tweaks to a plant's genes, such as making canola less palatable or even toxic to pests.

WATCH | What is CRISPR gene editing?

CRISPR gene-editing tool

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Researchers are experimenting with CRISPR, a powerful tool that can alter the DNA of humans. The implications have scientists excited, but nervous.

Kateryn Rochon, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Manitoba and insect specialist, said there are three main species of flea beetles on the Prairies that are responsible for crop destruction. 

"Flea beetles are very small beetles, kind of shiny. They come out in the spring and feed on growing canola plants … and feed on peas. They're actually pretty cute, unless you're a grower, and then you want to kill them with fire."

There are three main species of flea beetles on the Prairies that are responsible for crop destruction, according to Kateryn Rochon, an associate professor of entomology. (Tom Jokinen/CBC)

While genetically-engineered plants are a promising option to control pest infestations, farmers are also utilizing more traditional techniques, such as monitoring crop rotations and spraying seeds with certain pesticides that make the adult plant inedible, Peters said. 

Another idea being explored by organic farmers is to fight pests with other pests. This technique is based on ecosystem research and biology, Rochon said. 

"They pay more attention to what's naturally occurring. They're using natural enemies. One of the tenets of biological control is to create micro habitats, habitats that are suitable and inviting for the natural enemy," she said. 

One example of using beneficial insects to control pests is for farmers to introduce parasitic wasps into their crops. These wasps feed on the insects which destroy crops, while leaving the plants alone, according to the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture.

As the effects of climate change are becoming more and more visible, Peters said it is being "talked about a lot," but it's still a "very touchy subject" among farmers. 

"We have to deal with the weather almost more than anyone else. Farmers need to be at the table to talk about this, to talk with professionals, to talk with politicians about how we are going to be in charge of this." 

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Tom Jokinen.


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