I am a Community Food Coordinator in Cape Breton, and I am also a small-scale vegetable farmer at Local Motive Farm. In both of these roles, climate change is on my mind on a daily basis. My work day consists of holding the big picture of the food system in Cape Breton, while juggling many balls as my team and I work towards shifting this food system. One of those balls is climate change. How do we respond appropriately to this crisis while being embedded in a food system that doesn’t depend on local food production; a system that leads one to believe that the food supply is infinite, with little thought to what steps are required to get that food to a grocery store? Consumers are not really seeing the impacts of climate change on our regional food supply. If strawberry crops fail in Nova Scotia, we can just buy them from California, right?
Meanwhile, I come home to my little farm and see the impacts of changing climate directly. I have been selling vegetables for over 10 years, and in that time, extreme variability has become the norm and responsiveness an important skill. I check the weather forecast every day, and try to prepare for it, but how do we prepare in the long-term for the unfolding crisis that climate change poses for the way we grow food? How are farmers responding to this?
What Farmers are up Against Day to Day
Some of the things I see and face when it comes to growing food in a changing climate:
- We have had some very late, cold springs these last couple of years. This means:
- crops are going in late,
- germination is slow,
- growth is slow,
- availability of produce is delayed,
- getting animals to pasture is delayed,
- and fruit blossoms are at risk due to late frost (no blossoms = no fruit, aka crop failure).
- Early frost in the fall. This means:
- cold sensitive crops are damaged,
- or crop failure.
- Too much rain. This means:
- delay in working fields,
- increased disease pressure,
- impacts on crop quality,
- and crop failure.
- Not enough rain. This means:
- poor germination,
- poor quality,
- decreased yields,
- livestock watering challenges,
- and crop failure.
- Weather events – high winds, heavy rain, hail, storm surges, heat waves, etc. This means:
- damage to infrastructure (greenhouses, buildings, etc.),
- soil erosion,
- livestock stress,
- crop damage,
- and crop failure.
What Farmers are Up Against in the Medium to Long Term
As the climate crisis escalates, risks to food production will also escalate. We are already experiencing some of these impacts:
- Loss of biodiversity
- Increased pest and disease pressure
- Catastrophic weather events (floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, etc.)
- Sea level rise
- Increased cost of inputs, infrastructure, and insurance
- Loss of livelihood
On Farm Adaptations
Growing food in a changing climate requires farming practices to change along with the weather. Some of the resiliency measures farmers are taking, include:
- Working with different plant species and animal breeds that are more adaptable to new weather conditions;
- Maintaining diversity, both in an ecological sense, and in the range of crops and crop varieties we grow, in order to spread out the risk;
- Managing soils as carbon storage, as water storage, and as nutrient storage. Biologically active soils high in organic matter are more resilient to weather stresses;
- Connected to soil health, is reduced tillage and maintenance of ground cover. Tillage exposes soil to erosion and evaporation. Covering the ground in mulch, living mulch, or crop residue, increases biological activity, water holding capacity, and reduces water loss;
- Land management techniques, such as rotational grazing, watershed protection, planting of windbreaks and buffers, raised bed production, tile drainage, etc.;
- Water management via irrigation, ponds and other forms of water storage;
- Climate control infrastructure, like greenhouses and low tunnels, with attention to more robust designs that can withstand wind and snow events;
- Other technologies, including weather and pest forecasting;
- Integrated pest management and/or organic pest management;
- Permaculture techniques, including the use of perennial food crops, like fruit and nut trees;
- An overall mindset of agroecology, recognizing the complexities of interacting forces on a farm.
Cape Breton farmer, Len Vassallo, guiding a farm tour on season extension.
Read more about what climate change means for farmers in the Spring issue of the Ecology & Action magazine (article found here).
Blog written by: Jody Nelson, Community Food Coordinator Cape Breton, Ecology Action Centre
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood