Top ten weather stories for 2011: story four

Table of Contents

4. Down on the Farm: Doom to Boom

A map of Canada indicating regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with flooding during the growing season.

In the West...

Some farmers unable to seed their fields in 2010 were in the same predicament again this year due to excessively wet weather. Others managed to seed only to watch their fields submerge under water not once but twice. By the first day of summer, several growers had given up and those who persevered knew only too well that late-seeded crops typically yield less and are at greater risk from fall frosts. The Canadian Wheat Board estimated that 2.75 million hectares of farmland went unseeded in the West, mostly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which amounted to the second largest incidence of abandoned cropland since the early 1970s; 2010 was the worst. The prolonged flooding and saturation threatened to cost the western economy several billion dollars. Farmers needed abundant sunshine and drying winds but got neither, with the area between Regina and Portage la Prairie awash in water. On into June, some diehard producers were still seeding a month later than normal. In contrast, central and northern Alberta and Saskatchewan had favourable May weather allowing farmers to make excellent progress during the late spring.

© Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Flooded farmland near Weyburn, Saskatchewan in April.

Even more extraordinary was the reversal of weather come summer. Veteran farmers couldn’t remember a growing season more challenging as the land changed from saturated to scorched. For some, a growing season that began as a washout ended in a spectacular harvest with three months of great ripening and drying weather. A hot, dry, sunny July and August helped boost crop development and enabled farmers to play catch-up while northern growing areas saw much-needed rains. In Winnipeg, July was the driest month since record-keeping began in 1872. Even the most rain-soaked areas dried out by August. The town of Souris, Manitoba, which needed the military to bag and bail in June, was desperate for rain in July. While one reporter described it as a case of weather whiplash, it was best summed up by a seasoned grower who stated: "I could be receiving flood and drought insurance payments at the same time."

© Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  Flooded farmland near Weyburn, Saskatchewan in April.

Across the Prairies summer came in September. As urbanities headed to parks and pools (opened past Labour Day), farmers worked around the clock to bring in the harvest. On September 25, four days after the start of fall, Edmonton hit its warmest temperature of the year at 31.4°C. August and September were the city’s driest on record, coming out of one of the wettest June-July periods on record. In Calgary, the September rainfall of 10.6 mm was about one-quarter of its monthly average and in a six-week period from mid-August to September 25, the city had only 6 days with rain. Amazingly, there were two five-day spells with temperatures above 25°C in September, after a June, July and August with no more than two-day spells of similar temperatures. When a severe frost hit in the middle of September, damage was minimal as most crops had matured. By the end of that month the harvest was 85 per cent complete and all wrapped up by Thanksgiving. With the reversal of weather came a reversal of fortunes, with yields of average to above average in quantity and quality. Instead of losing billions, western farm producers pocketed their fourth-highest net return ever. As an added bonus, prices were strong.

In the East...

Farmers in the East also faced a challenging growing season. It started with cold weather and heavy rains that stalled planting, followed by a lengthy dry spell at a critical stage of crop reproduction. Heavy and relentless rains followed between August and October, which delayed the harvest and reduced crop quality. The seeds of a difficult growing season were sown early with a wet spring that washed away or drowned what was planted. Farmers lost a whole month to weather. In Ontario and Quebec, less than 5 per cent of the corn crop was sown by the end of April compared to 90 per cent in 2010. And when it wasn’t raining, it unfortunately wasn’t drying as sunshine totals averaged over 2.5 hours less per day in May. Even bees were behind in pollinating. Veteran growers quickly declared it the worst year for planting anyone could ever remember. The lingering cool and wet weather also kept farmers in Atlantic Canada off their sodden fields, delaying planting of potatoes and grain, and raising fears about moisture-related crop diseases.

On the first day of summer, the weather abruptly changed across central Canada. By mid-July, Ontario farmers were desperate for water. Bouts of dry, hot weather were especially hard on wheat, corn and soybeans. Niagara’s fruit producing region was particularly parched. In a 28-day period between the last week of June and the first three weeks of July a paltry 0.2 mm of rain fell in Hamilton. Some late July rains came just in the nick of time to prevent a crop disaster. August was record wet in southern Quebec, which delayed the harvest, while in Ontario excessive rains in September and October were enough to significantly delay the harvest. Some growers reported a majority of crop still standing by mid-October. In Essex County, only 10 per cent of soybean crops had been harvested by Halloween while practically no corn has been taken from the fields – not surprising since the nearby City of Windsor experienced rain on more than half the days in September and October. The two-month total rainfall was 330 mm or more than twice the normal average. Many farmers couldn’t reach their crops without getting stuck in the mud and the soggy conditions also prevented the seeding of winter wheat. On the plus side, farmers benefited from a late first frost and snow. In London, for example, the first frost was two to three weeks late while in Ottawa no snow fell before Remembrance Day for the first time since records began in 1937.  For growers in the East, a warmer-than-normal period from August to November was their saving grace.  In the end, the wavering weather created a multitude of outcomes for farmers ranging from doom to boom depending on the crop and location.

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