For months, Will Robbins has been praying for snow. The organic grain and cattle farmer's Saskatchewan fields are "tapped out" of water after three back-to-back years of drought. Deep into February — merely eight weeks away from planting season — the paltry amount of snow covering the ground has him bracing for another difficult year.

"There isn't really any residual ground-level moisture in the subsoil like there might be in other years," he said. "I am a little worried."

Robbins isn't the only Canadian farmer nervous about the months to come. From Thunder Bay, Ont., to Vancouver, B.C., much of Western Canada is suffering a drought and many regions are seeing lower-than-normal precipitation. Extreme temperature swings have also hit some areas hard, with a January cold snap wiping out entire cherry and stone fruit orchards in B.C.

"I'm worried that this could easily transform into a very serious western Canadian crop drought and indicators show that we are in more of a multi-year drought," said Jim Vercammen, a land and food systems professor at the University of British Columbia and a former farmer.

Except for parts of northern Canada, most of the country is currently suffering from drought, leaving farmers worried. Map by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

The situation is poised to become more common because of climate change. The Prairies and B.C. are experiencing the strongest warming in southern Canada, according to a federal report released between 2020 and 2022. Experts predict the region will continue to get warmer and more prone to erratic temperatures and precipitation patterns.

Further west, fruit growers in B.C. are bracing for a bad year. A cold snap in early January hit fruit producers hard, with experts estimating that frost killed most of this year's projected grape crop in the Okanagan and about 75 per cent of the region's cherries.

Apple growers in the province have also suffered, with production last year falling by about eight per cent because of dry weather and temperature swings. Meanwhile, the province's blueberry crop dropped by nearly a fifth in 2023 because of a spring heat wave that made it harder for bees to pollinate.

For months, Will Robbins has been praying for snow. The organic grain and cattle farmer's Saskatchewan fields are "tapped out" of water after three back-to-back years of drought.

While the warmer climate and longer growing season could lead to higher yields for some crops, the federal report authors warn that overall, the increasingly extreme weather like droughts and cold snaps will force farmers to adapt their practices to survive.

"We're trying to catch more snow and minimize any moisture loss where we can," Robbins said. He has started building artificial snowdrifts in the middle of his fields to try to prevent the scarce snow from blowing away. The technique isn't new — his family has used it for years — but he said in normal conditions, he would not bother taking the time and diesel needed to pile snow.

He is also cutting his grain higher, so the longer stubble catches more snow and is considering buying a machine that only harvests the grain head. That leaves the entire stalk in the ground over winter, helping prevent snow from blowing away.

"In ordinary moisture conditions, I wouldn't be as worried about it or feel like I need to scrounge up every drop that I can," he said.

Modifying practices is not the only problem farmers face, with observers questioning if Canada's crop insurance system is adequate to keep farms in business amidst increasingly extreme weather. While several programs exist, one of the most common reimburses farmers a portion of their estimated income based on their previous crops.

That approach can send farmers into a downward spiral if they are subject to a bad harvest — and low incomes — several years in a row. The system is built to "weather a stable climate," said Robbins. "In the long run, if the climate is less stable, the program's not going to be sustainable."

Those impacts are particularly challenging for young or new farmers who are still establishing themselves, said Keith Currie, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. That's because young farmers typically have "a lot of debt" to pay off and it is vital they can meet their payments. Ideally, this should be through a successful crop, but if not, disaster crop insurance can help them stay in business.

Still, Robbins said crop insurance can't be the only tool to keep farms afloat amidst a changing climate. Farmers need to change their practices to reduce emissions and make themselves more resilient. Continuing to rely on industrial farming practices, diesel fuel and nitrogen fertilizers is a "fool's errand," he said, Instead, farming needs to become more sustainable.

"Climate change — if it's not the primary worry for agricultural producers in the Prairies, it certainly should be," he said. "Farming is a good life in lots of ways. But I do worry sometimes that I came home to farm right at the wrong climate time."

Keep reading

Good Morning,
I often acccompany my tasks with an audio of the articles in the National Observer, but a recent article by Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, February 26, 2024 "Fruit and grain farmers are braced for a bad summer" had many dashes between comments by the farmers which had the digital reader quoting the text as back slash back slash, repeatedly. This interruption happened so many times it distracted from the context of the story. Please, either stop using dashes and use punctuation or program the reader to ignore the dashes.