Fruit and Vegetable Editorial: May 2014
By Marg Land
Like every good Canadian, there’s nothing I enjoy more than griping about the weather. And, like every good farmer’s daughter, there’s usually a sound agricultural reason behind my tirades.
Growing up, my father always told me to be a good farmer you need to possess the heart of a gambler. You might be the most gifted crop producer in the county, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate, it just doesn’t matter.
Of course, a lot has changed since I was a youngster. Technology improvements help farmers “cheat” Mother Nature, including drip irrigation, frost protection, wind machines, row covers, hoop houses, hail cannons and netting, just to name a few. But really, once the wind dies down and the snow settles, the weather always seems to find a way of spinning around and biting you in the butt.
The winter of 2013-2014 will certainly be one I won’t easily forget, providing me with a lovely new term to whine and cuss about – polar vortex. As I watched growers posting photos on social media depicting -30 C temperatures in their orchards, I shivered in sympathy and felt strangely happy that my thermometer was only showing -28 C.
With the snow now melted and temperatures beginning to warm seasonally, it’s time to take stock of what that winter has meant to fruit and vegetable producers across Canada.
In the Maritimes, snowstorms in March resulted in high snow levels that even at mid-April were still causing issues. In New Brunswick, apple producers forecast at least a 30 per cent drop in yields for 2014 due to damage caused by deer browsing on buds, unable to reach vegetation under the snow. In Nova Scotia, a wet and cold spring resulted in delays for many apple growers who could not access orchards for pruning.
In Ontario, extremely cold temperatures in January and February decimated peach production outside of the Niagara Region. According to Murray Porteous, who grows about 40 acres of fresh peaches in Norfolk County, the cold resulted in the destruction of about 90 per cent of his 2014 crop.
“Peaches are in bad shape,” he said in an interview with the local newspaper, The Simcoe Reformer. “They just can’t handle this cold.”
Meanwhile, field surveys in the Niagara region showed a normal crop is still expected, according to the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board.
On the vinifera grape front, the Wine Spectator reported a 40 per cent loss of crop across Ontario with spotty damage in Niagara but complete decimation in some other growing regions. In light of the damage, researchers with Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute released several strategy papers helping growers deal with vine management issues relating to cold injury.
But now that the winter weather is behind us, what can growers expect for the rest of the 2014 season? According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), two words – El Nino.
Based on a report released in mid-April by the WMO, sub-surface water temperatures in the tropical Pacific are warming to levels normally observed during an El Nino event. According to climate models surveyed by WMO researchers, an El Nino may develop around the middle of the year.
“Model forecasts indicate a fairly large potential for an El Nino, most likely by the end of the second quarter of 2014,” the report states. “For the June to August period, approximately two-thirds of the models surveyed predict that El Nino thresholds will be reached, while the remaining models predict a continuation of neutral conditions. A few models predict an early El Nino onset, such as in May.”
The strength of the possible event cannot yet be estimated, although we might be relieved to know that no model is suggesting a La Nina event in 2014.
“If an El Nino event develops – and it is still too early to be certain – it will influence temperature and precipitation and contribute to droughts or heavy rainfall in different regions of the world,” said WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud. “El Nino has an important warming effect on global average temperatures, as we saw during the strong El Nino in 1998. Only two out of the past 15 years were categorized as El Nino years, and yet all were warmer than average. The combination of natural warming from any El Nino event and human-induced warming from greenhouse gases has the potential to cause a dramatic rise in global mean temperature.”
So, it’s looking like a warm growing season in 2014. But then again, maybe not.