As July 2022 drew to a close, federal, provincial and territorial ministers met in Saskatoon to negotiate the next five years of funding that will govern government agriculture spending across Canada until 2028.
The lobby group called Farmers for Climate Solutions figured ministers needed some help. Prior to the meeting, it sent out a plea to the ag sector, urging participants to call, write or e-message their governments to follow the group’s climate mitigation plan. It made the plan available to ministers well in advance of the meeting.
The group says its grassroots plan would scale up the adoption of climate-friendly practices that reduce GHG emissions, increase carbon sequestration and strengthen resilience on farms, they say.
“It’s crunch time,” says the organization. “We need…our governments to work together towards a common strategy to tackle climate change in our sector.”
The ministers meet every year to exchange information and views. You may recall last year’s meeting produced a priority document called the “Guelph Statement.” Its first point: tackle climate change and environmental protection to support greenhouse gas emission reductions and the long-term vitality of the sector, while positioning producers and processors to seize economic opportunities from evolving consumer demands.
So on paper at least, the ministers get it. The Guelph Statement was supposed to be a turning point and template for agriculture and the environment in this country.
But the chasm over the environment between governments and farmers has deepened and widened.
Ministers can and will point to well-intentioned efforts they’ve made in the past year to close the gap.
The governments they represent, however, have not shown the kind of leadership, commitment, cooperation or creativity that agriculture needs. Misguided, tone-deaf or politically motivated environmental policies have failed them, and they’ve failed agriculture.
Farmers for Climate Solutions is right: crunch time is indeed here, in Canada and around the world.
Days before the ministers were to meet, Europe was experiencing a heat wave of Biblical proportions. Britain recorded its highest temperature ever. Thousands of people in Spain, France and Greece were fleeing wildfires. Analysis was surfacing that showed heat had lowered the European Union’s GDP by 0.5 per cent.
Yet a cohesive plan remains elusive and climate change deniers continue to gain support, claiming governments everywhere are lying about the situation.
How much more evidence is needed?
Politically, the U.S. is struggling with the environment as much as Canada. President Joe Biden has invested billions into supporting environmental programs underpinning agriculture. But overall, the majority of Americans are not buying into his policies.
Maybe there’s hope. Seasonal weather events such as those in Europe have a way of changing people’s minds. The near-tropical Christmas in Ontario a few years ago was pivotal in opening the public’s eyes here to climate change.
But the textbook example is California, where the mother of all climate change events just won’t quit.
The state has been in a significant drought for some 20 years. In June, 99.79 per cent of the state was experiencing drought, affecting 37.2 million people. Almost half of the state was in D3 category drought, the second-highest level.
I had the opportunity to experience it firsthand in July. After happily serving as best man at a friend’s wedding in Santa Clara, we took a week-long holiday in the Russian River Valley, one of California’s most productive wine-producing regions. It’s highly rural, very welcoming to visitors and much less glitzy than nearby Napa or Sonoma, which is part of its appeal.
Many of the grape vines here are very old – it’s not unusual to find vines 100-plus years old – so the roots are metres deep and less subject to drought. Still, growers are taking measures such as drip irrigation and mulching between rows to conserve what little water is available.
In some areas around Healdsburg, a Russian River destination, a moratorium has been placed on new vine development. “It’s not sustainable,” said Andy Tester, manager at Limerick Lanes Cellars, which planted some of Sonoma County’s first Zinfandel grapes. “There’s just not enough water to support them.”
Despite the drought, fruit and vegetable producers at the vibrant and community-minded Healdsburg Farmers’ Market continue harvesting amazing peaches, blueberries, grapes, onions, flowers and olives. One market veteran, Lou Preston of Preston Farm and Winery, told me the municipality cut back his 125-acre farm’s water allocation because of the drought.
So, he cut back production.
“It means I have less to sell, but I understand the situation,” he says. Diversity has helped with the bottom line -- in 2008, he started planting fruit and vegetables as well as wine grapes. He now runs a CSA from the farm and winery, as well…which ironically is located in Dry Creek Valley.
Winery management consultant David Vergari, who runs tastings at the impressive Chalk Hill Estate Winery and has clients in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, says local producers generously share management tips with each other, including ways to survive the drought.
He routinely encourages them to check out knowledge sources such as UC Davis Extension for management, and actively seek information from growers in similar climate regions.
“If I was a grower in your neck of the woods [Ontario], I would reach out to my brethren in the Finger Lakes,” he says. “A good many similarities exist.”
Cooperation, finely tuned management and patience prevail. But so does drought. And despite intense competition among wineries, a sense of camaraderie seems to be helping them pull through.