Growing Food in a Year of Drought and Fire - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

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In August a massive inferno the ‘Bush Creek East’ fire swept through the Shuswap region of British Columbia, forcing thousands of residents to flee their homes and communities.

Denise Griffiths, Sorrento Village Farmers’ Market

Denise Griffiths, Sorrento Village Farmers’ Market

“All hell broke loose,” is how Denise Griffiths, one of the evacuees, describes the experience.  She would find refuge in a hotel in Sicamous, 100 kilometers from her home in Celista.  Through it all, she kept in touch with farmers who sell their produce at the weekly farmers’ market in the village of Sorrento which Griffiths manages.

“The heavy, heavy smoke has damaged the corn crop. My winery vendor in Celista has no grapes for wine this year. One hundred percent of his grapes are done because the smoke ruined them. One vendor had to move over 150 animals to other properties to make sure they were safe.”

Griffiths says every one of her vendors were affected in some way including one grower who lost 380 pounds of Haskap berries in a freezer when the power went out.

“She makes sauces for things like pancakes, ice cream and salad dressing. That loss will actually affect her next year.”

On August 19, the farmers’ market in Sorrento never opened after an emergency evacuation order was issued the day before. The market would reopen the following Saturday but only eight of 30 vendors attended. Elsewhere, the massive Bush Creek fire would end up shutting down at least two other markets but this time for the season.

“Never has there been a disruption like this before. Smoke affects everyone, even those in good health. I’m back on an inhaler,” adds Griffiths.

2023 is the worst fire season on record in BC. As of the end of August, almost 600 million dollars had been spent by the Province on wildfire costs, triple the money set aside in the 2023 budget.

For others, the wildfires are also a stark reminder of how climate disasters much farther away affect peoples’ lives.  Lydia Ryall operates an organic farm ‘Cropthorne’ on Westham Island near the mouth of the Fraser river.  She vividly remembers September 2020 when smoke from California wildfires rolled into the Lower Mainland while she and co-workers were harvesting squash.

Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm

Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm

“The sky was orange. The smoke was at ground level and we were wearing full on respirators. September is the month where you have to get something done each week because there’s another crop to harvest the next week, and it was challenging. It’s physical labour. It’s not enjoyable to be working all day with a respirator on.”

Since then, there have been extreme weather swings from flooding and late spring planting to severe drought. This summer most of BC’s water basins were classified in the highest categories of drought. Many communities enacted water restrictions.

Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma has described the drought conditions as ‘a sleeping giant of a natural disaster’ with the possibility of flooding in the fall and continuing drought conditions next year.

Global temperatures during July were hotter than any prior records. Scientists who track these numbers conclude that the frequency and intensity of weather-related events are due to the consequences of carbon pollution.

In the Delta region of BC many farms rely on irrigation to water their plants. For Ryall, the irrigated water comes from the Fraser through a series of canals.

“Ten years ago we would have good access to water until mid-August and maybe five years ago, it would be early August. Then this year, it was by mid-July. It feels like the last couple of years there has been no normalcy or predictability. As farmers we roll with the weather. There’s not much we can do about it but it really leaves us scrambling. It’s tiring. You can only anticipate so much.”

Complicating matters is the fact that as the water flow slows, salt in the water builds and some plants cannot tolerate the salt. Ryall has tried to adapt to the challenges of climate change by farming in environmentally sustainable ways. One of her early influences occurred 20 years ago while she was pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.

“When I was in university, I took an environmental economics class. I said holy smokes the world is going to heck. It really changed how I wanted to farm and what I wanted to do in local food production.”

She has tried to buffer the effects of climate change by growing a lot of different crops.

“We are growing and harvesting every week of the year and even within one variety, say carrots. We are growing three different kinds of orange carrots. The biggest thing that helps out is diversity to help deal with some of the weather extremes.”

Cropthorne Farm at Vancouver's West End Farmers' Market

Cropthorne Farm at Vancouver’s West End Farmers’ Market

Ryall’s produce is sold throughout the year at farmers’ markets in Vancouver, part of a network of 145 farm markets across the province. That translates into about two thousand individuals, most of them small scale farmers, supplying vegetables, fruit and other products to local markets.

Some farmers’ markets have been affected by smoke or fire risk confirms Heather O’Hara, executive director of the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets.

“The impacts are stronger than ever. Every time we have forest fires, every time we have more flooding, every time we have more drought, more of our farmers are affected. Some of our farmers are in fire zones, some in drought zones.”

The association plans to create an emergency response tool kit next year for farmers’ markets to manage a range of issues from air quality to flooding events.

Tammara Soma, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and director of research at the school’s Food Systems Lab, has studied the impact on agriculture, specifically the post-harvest loss from various weather events such as flooding and wildfire smoke.

“When smoke penetrates fruit trees, it makes the fruit taste smoky, not a good taste. Also, farmers are facing a lot of hardship when it comes to drought. Livestock is another issue. I’ve been hearing issues all across BC from hay and grass drying up.”

Tammara Soma, Simon Fraser University Food Systems Lab.

Tammara Soma, Simon Fraser University Food Systems Lab.

Little can be done by farmers to deal with fire risks but they can mitigate some of the effects of drought. Heather O’Hara says the typical farmer who chooses to sell at a farmers’ market cares about climate friendly methods, finding ways to preserve the fertility of the soil, allowing a farm to be more resilient.

“They are farming at a scale where they can think about biodiversity and regenerative agricultural practices much easier than a large five thousand acre field. That would mean not having one single species of food being grown. It means mixed farming, cover crops and using natural pest management practices instead of relying on synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. You may be using mulch or compost, no till farming. These things are actually carbon sinks in some cases. So the practices are not creating greenhouse gases to start.”

Heather O'Hara, BC Association of Farmers’ Markets

Heather O’Hara, BC Association of Farmers’ Markets

O’Hara also believes farmers’ markets appeal to what she calls, new entrance farmers, younger farmers who are interested in growing food that is environmentally responsible.

“They want to make the world better, they want to leave the soil in a better place, and they want to have clean water. They are adaptable, flexible to meet the needs of the community, make choices to grow things that are better for the planet, more seasonal in nature, growing things that can adapt as climate changes.”

The wish of her group she says is to strengthen local food systems by feeding their neighbours and communities.

That too is the aim of Linda Delli Santi who operated a commercial greenhouse for almost 30 years and who is now executive director of the BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association. Most of the 55 greenhouse operators are in the Lower Mainland and have not been affected by fire.
They produce 11 percent of food value in BC, export much of it in tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers.

Linda Delli Santi, BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association

Linda Delli Santi, BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association

“We are growing food in controlled environments, in harmony with nature. I see the volumes we produce on a smaller footprint with sustainable practices like our water use being a huge contributor to food security of BC and Canada.”

Greenhouse plants sit in bags and most are grown in gutters. What water the plants don’t use is collected and re-used. Apart from water use, growers rely on natural gas to heat their greenhouses, a practice that has been criticized by environmentalists.

Delli Santi says the industry is looking at alternatives to natural gas but has yet to find a fuel source that would meet their needs.

“So the natural gas when we burn it, we directly take off the natural gas boiler and pump it into the greenhouse as CO2 (carbon dioxide) for the plants because the function of photosynthesis requires the plant have CO2. Within a half hour of first light all of the CO2 in the greenhouse is gone. The plants have taken it up. So, if you want to get good yields, healthy crops, larger size, natural gas is the best way to do it.”

Delli Santi believes greenhouse production is the way to go to feed the world with better yields on smaller tracts of land.

So are greenhouse growers and farmers’ markets part of the solution to climate change?

SFU Professor Tammara Soma believes both play an important role in supplying fresh food from BC rather than flown or trucked in from many parts of the world. She says the province needs to be more self-reliant in terms of food production.

“Greenhouses are thinking of making their operations more sustainable because they are energy intensive. I think it’s important that they be located on places that are not actual prime agriculture farm land. You need to protect and use the soil in a better way.”

Shoppers at Vancouver's West End Farmers' Market

Shoppers at Vancouver’s West End Farmers’ Market

As for farmers’ markets, Soma thinks the biggest problem is making them more accessible to a lot more people, making it an easy option.

“Farmers’ markets create an environment where people value food a lot more. It’s not that we don’t have the food, it’s that sometimes the farmer just needs help to market it to people or help curate it. Right now, we often just focus on the top five monopolies of retailers, so diversifying whether that is farmers’ markets or food co-ops, or gardening in urban agriculture for indigenous people, we need to diversify.”

For people living in the Shuswap region, their concerns are much more immediate. Hundreds have lost their homes to fire and seen their livelihoods upended.

Denise Griffiths and her husband were able to return to their home after three weeks. The fire did not reach her home but it came close, destroying several other buildings on her property and seriously damaging trees.

“Everywhere I look it’s blackened trees. It’s a lot worse than I expected. I’m in the process of cleaning a dusty film that’s on everything in my house including inside cupboards.”

As for the farmers’ market in Sorrento it may be extended beyond its usual closing date of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Griffiths says it would be good for community spirit, seeing people getting together, checking on each other. It’s that kind of community spirit that will be needed as people in the area adjust to new circumstances in their lives.

“Everyone is concerned about climate change. It will affect us whether our farmers can water their fields and grow it, whether it’s smoke coming in and ruining the flavour of their crop. They are saying the fire on the north side is so severe; we will have spot fires popping up in Spring next year. So we will be dealing with this six months from now.”

As Lydia Ryall reflects on the future, she has many unanswered questions. In 2014, she was honoured as BC’s outstanding young farmer. Now the mother of young children, she wonders what’s ahead for them.

“At the end of the day farmers are adaptable. We grow so many different crops and farmers have ingenuity that’s bred into us I think. But between climate change and the pandemic, it just feels like a lot of things are getting thrown at farmers these days that are external to what we are typically used to doing in a day. With our kids, the question is definitely does this make sense? If my children want to do this, it’s obviously up to them. Is it burdening them if one of them chooses to come back, stay on the farm and what are the challenges because it feels like a lot of heartbreak in it these days?”

Bill Stovin is a retired journalist with a long career at CBC-TV and radio and in private radio as well as a former Communications Director in government.