Maritime farmers say crops threatened by drought

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It’s been a hot summer in the Maritimes and there hasn’t been a lot of rain.

According to the Canadian Drought Monitor, much of New Brunswick is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions while most of Nova Scotia is considered to be “abnormally dry.”

The conditions are having an impact on farmers, who say they urgently need rain.

“I am a few days away from being desperate for sure,” says farmer Darrell Roddick.

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Roddick owns My Grandfather’s Farm in Pictou County. They’re still a young farm, and have only been growing produce on about five acres of land for two years, but this year the pond that supplies 90 per cent of the water they use for their irrigation system has all but run dry.

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Given the lack of rain, Roddick says he’d like to be irrigating his crops for about 90 minutes every day, but with his water supply so low, he had reduced that to only 30-minute sessions for a total of 90 minutes a week to try to conserve as much water as possible.

“Today was my last 30 minutes, and then the foot of the pump was exposed,” he said.

During good times, if his pond was running low he’d be able to fill it from the brook running through his property, but right now that is completely dry, forcing him instead to drive over to get some water from the river itself.

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“This morning I spent three and a half hours getting what I would have called an insignificant amount of water to my plants,” said Roddick

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Over in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Greg Gerrits runs Elmridge Farm Ltd. and says ensuring his crops are getting water is also taking up large amounts of time.

He also has an irrigation system for his 175 acres of produce, and in addition to the extra labour it takes to keep things running, the costs are quickly adding up.

“It’s probably an extra $15,000 a week or so on our farm, an expense that if you had rain it wouldn’t be there,” said Gerrits.

“That adds up if you start doing that 10 weeks in a row that’s quite a chunk of change.”

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For now, most of the crops are healthy. While rain would be better than the irrigation system, they’re not losing anything to the drought so far. Gerrits says the bigger challenge this summer has been the labour shortage.

Fewer foreign workers have been able to come over due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and even the ones that have come were about a month late.

“So if you take the labour that 25 guys can do in one month that’s how far we are behind in labour,” said Gerrits.

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“So we’ve actually lost some crops to [that], we couldn’t keep them weeded or whatever so we just let them go.”

But if they don’t get rain soon, the drought could have more of an impact on the remaining crops.

“As time goes on it gets a little more desperate, a little more desperate.”

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Back in Pictou County, Roddick says he needs rain now.

Already some of his crops are starting to yellow and if the weather doesn’t co-operate it could significantly shorten his season. But for both farmers, the bigger concern is that this could be the new normal.

With the climate changing globally, there are worries that temperatures in Nova Scotia will continue to rise and there will be fewer days of rain.

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Gerrits says change is already happening, and points to his sweet potato crops as an example.

“Twenty years ago, if you told someone you could grow sweet potatos they’d say you’re crazy, and you probably were because the temperatures weren’t as warm,” said Gerrits.

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He says if things continue this way, farmers will have to rethink what crops they plant, and there will be even more dependence on irrigation systems, which means that farmers will need more sustainable water sources.

For both Gerrits and Roddick, one way to do that is to have more irrigation ponds around the farm, another cost that can quickly add up.

“Things are changing for sure,” said Gerrits.

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