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Climate change: The new talk of farm country

From Monday's Globe and Mail

From the vineyards of Ontario's Niagara Peninsula to the wheat fields of the Prairies, farmers across the country are in the thick of harvesting.

But this year in farm country, besides the normal talk about crop conditions, there is also chatter about global warming. Few farmers have ever seen a year like this one, marked by hot, sunny and unusually dry conditions in so many regions.

“Every single conversation that goes on about yields and weather conditions, global warming is part of that conversation,” says Stewart Wells, a Saskatchewan farmer and head of the National Farmers Union, although he adds that growers are unsure that what they are seeing is really climate change starting to happen.

While global warming is expected to have many deleterious effects, such as melting icecaps and rising sea levels, it has always been considered something of a potential agricultural boon for Canadian farmers.

Most computer models used to simulate future climates indicate that as the world warms due to rising amounts of greenhouse gases, Canada will be a big winner, with elevated temperatures holding out the prospect of longer growing seasons and the ability to raise crops at more northerly latitudes.

These computer models also predict that higher temperatures will be accompanied by more precipitation, and more extreme weather events, such as flash floods and windstorms.

Earlier this year, the UN's authoritative science body on global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projected that moderate climate change — the type most likely to occur over the next few decades — will likely increase yields in the agricultural areas of North America dependent on precipitation. It also forecast improved conditions for fruit production in the Great Lakes region and in Eastern Canada.

Another recent computer projection by the consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an umbrella organization representing 15 of the world's top crop research centres, said that by 2050, areas of Labrador and other parts of Northern Canada may be warm enough to grow wheat.

Many farmers wondering about climate change point to the Prairies this year as a possible harbinger of things to come. The summer has been warmer, but the weather has been following only part of the script suggested by the computer models because precipitation has been lacking.

Paul Beingessner, who raises livestock and durum wheat in Truax, Sask., southeast of Regina, says he's noticed a new seasonal weather pattern in his area that he attributes to global warming.

For the past five years, crop conditions have been favourable early in the season. Soil moisture has been fine in May and mid-June, followed by drought-like conditions and extreme heat for the balance of the summer that has harmed crops. Thanks to warmer temperatures, farmers have often been able to plant seed much earlier, sometimes in mid April, compared to previously in mid-May.

“It's really a different pattern. I would attribute it to global warming,” Mr. Beingessner said.

Mr. Wells said that in Southern Ontario, farmers have been suffering through drought-like conditions similar to the Prairies, and expect to take a hit on yields in non-irrigated areas.

The decline in precipitation has been remarkable in many prime growing areas of the country. The southern parts of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario were 40-per-cent drier than normal this summer, according to records compiled by Environment Canada.

Atlantic Canada hasn't experienced the same extremes, but farmers there also see traces of global warming.

In Prince Edward Island, potato grower J.P. Hendricken says his area hasn't experienced September frosts for about five years running. As well, there's been little snow in winter recently, and when it rains, it's more likely to be a deluge than gentle showers.

“I do see a great change in the weather here in the last five years, more than I've ever seen in [my] first 40 years of farming,” he said.

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