Cowichan Valley farmers are building climate resilience in the face of change

From extra-wet to extra-dry weather, local farmers are learning to adapt their practices in the face of climate change.

It was yet another topsy-turvy weather year for Cowichan Valley farmers, with spring rains that never seemed to end and fall rains that seemed like they would never come. 

Farming has always been at the mercy of changing weather conditions, but as climate change triggers more variable and extreme weather, local farmers have come to expect the unexpected. Now, they’re doing what they can to adapt by experimenting with crop varieties, cultivation techniques and water collection methods.

In the Cowichan Valley, farmers are coming up with ways to cope with the changing climate, while others are working on a broader scale to help farmers adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Crofton farmers spend Easter Sunday in gumboots

It was an Easter Sunday that Niki Strutynski and Nick Neisingh of Tatlo Road Farm in Crofton will never forget. 

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Farmers Niki Strutynski and Nick Neisingh stand in front of a planted field.
A wetter-than-usual spring and a drier-than-usual early autumn kept Niki Strutynski and Nick Neisingh of Tatlo Road Farm in Crofton on their toes, and on Easter Sunday, in their gumboots. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse.

Spring of 2022 was the couple’s ninth year on their seven-acre vegetable farm, and it was so unseasonably wet that they had to keep changing up their plans for the growing season. 

After seeding kale in their greenhouse, the farmers had to wait for a window of dry weather to prepare the beds for planting kale. They had to plant in a different, slightly drier area than planned due to heavy spring rainfall. This made them deviate from a strict rotation schedule designed to reduce chances of disease. 

“We had a lot of challenges just getting out to parts of our field that were so wet that we couldn’t even walk on them, never mind getting a tractor on,” Neisingh recalls. “It was really challenging; it meant pushing a lot of things back, trying to push the margins on the soil moistures.”

The forecast for Easter Sunday looked promising, so the couple dropped their two young children off with grandparents and spent the holiday in their gumboots making three, 400-foot-long beds for the kale. The bed-making process involves adding lime and mineral amendments by hand, some light spading to mix them in the soil and then using a tractor to lay drip tape and plastic mulch on the beds, Strutynski says.

“The mulch layer can be really finicky … you need the right conditions, which we didn’t really have. But we managed to lay less-than-ideal beds that Sunday,” she recalls. 

Within a week of planting the kale, Strutynski says heavy rains came and left standing water around the plants, causing some of them to die or grow poorly. 

Rows of vegetables and a greenhouse
Tatlo Road Farm, October 2018. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

The extremely dry summer and fall that followed extended Tatlo Road Farm’s growing season and enabled them to recoup some of the profits lost during the extremely wet spring, but  Strutynski says that the dry weather caused a dilemma of its own.

Cover cropping is a practice of planting a secondary crop that protects the soil from erosion and moisture loss if left exposed. Cover cropping also functions as a carbon sink and is a way that farmers can help combat climate change, Strutynski explains. 

In August, they planted an oat and pea mix as a cover crop but it failed due to lack of water, so the couple tilled it in and seeded rye in September. They ended up planting far less cover crop than planned because conditions were so dry, Strutynski says. 

“We’re having to do this tradeoff,” she recalls. “Do we irrigate our commercial crops, which is how we pay the bills, or do we irrigate this cover crop which, yes, for the long term is a good thing to have but actually doesn’t have any direct payoff for us?”

She notes the sad irony of the situation. 

“We’re trying to do things that help mitigate climate change even at our scale, but climate change is making it hard to do those things.”

It’s important to be really strategic when running a farm, says Strutynski, who actually enjoys figuring out the annual puzzle of what, where and when to plant. But, she says it’s harder to be strategic when the weather is so hard to predict. “When it was so wet that [we] couldn’t work the soil, we had to be constantly changing, updating, amending the planting schedule, which was quite stressful.”

Aftereffects of 2020 flood still being felt on local dairy farm

For the Porter Dairy Farm in Chemainus, the big flood of February 2020 is still causing headaches. A heavy rainstorm caused the Chemainus River to flood its banks, leading to the evacuation of several residents, including all families on the Halalt First Nation reserve, and the closure of Russell Farm Market for seven months.   

The 650 cows on the farm –  including 270 of which are in milk production and produce 8,500 litres per day – require a lot of feed, says Ian Porter, who runs the farm with his father, Don, and other family members. He says they farm about 400 acres for feed, including a 50-acre field along Bonsall Creek that they’ve been renting for the past 40 years.

Dairy farmers Ian and Jack porter stand in front of a barn with cows in the background. The elder Ian is on the right and Jack is on the left. They're both wearing brown jackets and have their hands in their pockets. Ian has a beard and neutral expression, Jake is smiling and is wearing a brown ball cap.
Ian Porter, pictured here with his son, Jack, says that Porter Dairy Farm in Chemainus is boosting its water storage capacity in response to changing rainfall patterns. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse.

When they planted corn in that field in the summer of 2020, Porter says he didn’t realize that the big flood that winter had taken out part of the dike on an adjacent property. This became apparent only days after planting when a king tide carried saltwater past the compromised dike and flooded their rented field. 

“We’d just finished planting the whole thing and virtually none of it grew,” Porter recalls. 

Attempts in 2021 to grow corn, and in 2022 to grow barley, fared poorly in the still-salty soil, Porter says. They recently plowed the land and turned over the subsoil so that hopefully, a third year of winter rains will wash most or all of the salt away, he says. 

To try to offset some of the feed deficit caused by the flooding, the dairy farm is sowing more winter wheat and fall rye as cover crops, Porter says. 

“This year we’ve planted more cover crop in hopes of taking more feed off in the spring so we have better carryover to try to get our volume back up again.”

Despite its size, the dairy farm doesn’t have any sources of groundwater such as wells or springs and has thus “always been short of water,” Porter says. Until recently, they depended on rainwater collected in three irrigation dugouts that fill during the winter and get pumped out until they run dry, typically by August, Porter says. About 10 years ago, the farm got a permit to turn a rock knoll on the property into a quarry that doubles as an irrigation pond. 

“We seem to get the same volume of rain throughout the year. It just comes in different patterns,” says Porter, who hopes to get an additional permit to expand the quarry. “We keep trying to get more water storage, because that’s the way of the future for sure.” 

Read also: Small family dairy farm goes big with home delivery business

Building climate resilience through building healthy soils

This year, there were no farmers’ markets, no weekly Community Supported Agriculture boxes of organic produce and no wholesale vegetable buyers for Green Fire Farm, off Gibbins Road in Duncan. The decision to “step away from the intensive cultivation and tillage” of growing vegetables for a season is, in part, an adaptation to climate change, says lead farmer DeLisa Lewis. 

The heat dome of June 2021 that made it too hot for their farmworkers to work, last November’s atmospheric river that flooded their farmhouse and “the extremes of too much water in the shoulder seasons, and too little water in the peak” were among the climate impacts being felt on the farm, Lewis says. 

“These things you sort of feel in your body over time, in addition to it playing out in real life in the field,” says Lewis, who adds that the break is also a way to recover from the pandemic, rising operational costs and labour challenges. “We’re struggling each year to be nimble enough to respond to those changes.”

DeLisa Lewis stands in a field with a black cow laying down behind and to the right of her. A sliver of another black cow is seen behind her left side. She's wearing a sky blue jacket and smiling.
DeLisa Lewis, lead farmer of Green Fire Farm, says that taking the past year off from growing market vegetables is, in part, an adaptation to climate change. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse.

The increasingly variable weather conditions are hard on soil organic carbon, which is “the life in the soil,” says Lewis, who has a PhD in agroecology and soils. She works part time as a research associate at UBC’s Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes Lab looking into the impact of farm management practices and how to “better support soil, water and nutrient availability across these extreme events.”

Diversification is a key strategy in cultivating healthy soils that can help build climate resilience, Lewis says. One way her farm does this is by integrating livestock into the system, using manure to cycle nutrients. For farms that focus on annual and perennial vegetables, she says it’s important to diversify the varieties grown, as well as the timing and location of where they are planted. 

Read also: These Cowichan Valley farmers are looking beyond pastures for profit

Green Fire Farm has also participated in several seed trials, where farmers across Canada with different soils and different climates try out and rate seed varieties, Lewis says. While many of the trials run by the BC Eco Seed Co-Op have shown promise, Lewis says that the orange and red carrot trial seeds they received this year had been damaged by cold spring temperatures, and thus failed to germinate.   

After a year off to restore and reassess, Lewis says the farm is planning to make changes, including scaling back on growing annual vegetables, boosting hay production and livestock and eventually growing more perennial vegetables and fruits. 

“It will overall reduce the intensity of the farm, but it also is a response to learning over time about what the soils do best with in terms of retaining moisture and nutrients,” Lewis explains. 

While she knows that not every farm can afford to take a season off, Lewis says that all of her farmer friends are making changes “either to how they market or what they produce … or just reduce and change how much risk they’re undertaking as part of the farming venture.”

B.C. program helping Island farmers adapt to climate change

Although the Cowichan Valley is blessed with a relatively mild climate, farmers need to be prepared for years such as 2021 with multiple extreme weather events, says Foster Richardson, who lives in Mill Bay and is a project manager for the province’s Climate Change Adaptation Program. The program is administered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC with funding from the province and the federal government, and Richardson manages the program for the Fraser Valley, Peace, and Vancouver Island regions. 

He says it’s tough to adapt fast enough when the weather changes so quickly within a short timespan.

“You’re talking a 55-degree [Celsius] swing in a few months and record rainfall. It’s so much harder to adapt to because those are things that are outside of that realm of familiarity,” he says.

A selfie of Foster Richardson standing in a field. He's wearing a brown plaid shirt and a brown ball cap.
Foster Richardson, project manager for BC’s Climate Change Adaptation Program and a Mill Bay resident, says that farmers on Vancouver Island are ready and willing participants in various climate adaptation projects. Photo courtesy of Foster Richardson.

To help farmers adapt to such variable conditions, Richardson contributed to the creation of a regional climate change adaptation strategy for Vancouver Island in 2020. The plan is part of a series of regional adaptation strategies in B.C. aimed at increasing the resilience of farmers to climate change, and builds upon a pilot adaptation strategies plan for the Cowichan Valley published in 2013. Richardson says the Vancouver Island plan focuses on four ways that climate change is impacting agriculture: warmer and drier summers, changing pest populations, increasing variability of weather conditions and much wetter winters. 

Richardson initiated eight projects in conjunction with the regional strategy for the adaptation program, which is funded through March 2023. One of the main projects, he says, is pest monitoring and integrated pest management trainings up and down the island over the past two years, including at Tatlo Road Farm. Richardson says followup monitoring indicates that farmers who put the trainings into practice are seeing a “tangible impact” on their crop production. 

Other Vancouver Island projects managed by Richardson include a risk analysis of water sources under threat, a scan of where there’s interest in trying out new crops and trial and demonstration projects on winter vegetables and alternative forage crops.  

“My experience in the last four years has been that the [agriculture] industry is receptive,” Richardson says. “Farmers realize for sure that conditions are changing and becoming more challenging.”

Farmers can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

While a lot of effort and attention goes to help farmers adapt to climate change, it’s also important for farmers to recognize that they can play a role in climate mitigation, says Andrew Rushmere, director of farmer training for Farmers for Climate Solutions and a Glenora resident. Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

The organization, formed in 2020, has been calling on governments to support farmers in reducing greenhouse emissions and building climate resilience. Many of the group’s recommendations, such as cover cropping, wetland protection and rotational grazing, ended up being integral to a $270 million investment by the federal government last year in climate-friendly agriculture. 

“It really kickstarted a very large conversation in the sector that hadn’t been happening before,” Rushmere says.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced plans to spend $1.05 billion over the next six years on sustainable agriculture to fight climate change as part of Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reductions Plan. But according to Rushmere, that investment is not nearly enough.

A selfie of Andrew Rushmere smiling, from the shoulders up. He is standing in front of a wood panel wall and wears a dark blue collared shirt with a light blue shirt underneath.
Andrew Rushmere, director of farmer training for Farmers for Climate Solutions and a Glenora resident, says that farmers can “punch far above our weight” in fighting climate change. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rushmere

“We think that the agriculture sector can punch far above our weight in terms of what’s needed,” he says. “We have the capacity and the ability and the resources and infrastructure to do more than what they’re [the federal government] planning in order to meet Canada’s broader GHG emission-reduction targets.”

He says the forthcoming Agricultural Policy Framework, which will govern federal dollars spent on agriculture from 2023 to 2028, is an important opportunity. Farmers for Climate Solutions is pushing for the framework to have a strong climate focus and incentivize practices that can improve soil health, retain nutrients, sequester carbon and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

“We hope that the government through the [Agricultural Policy Framework] process recognizes the powerhouse that is Canadian farmers as a whole and views basically all APF programs through the lens of climate change mitigation,” Rushmere says. 

Rushmere is organizing peer-to-peer trainings on climate-friendly practices to help farmers who are receiving government incentives succeed in their efforts. He launched pilot trainings this year and says his organization, in partnership with groups such as Young Agrarians in B.C., aims to train 10,000 farmers representing two million acres across the country over the next four years.

These practices can also play a role in mitigating climate impacts at the municipal level, Rushmere explains.  

“Municipalities have recognized that if they can get farmers in their regions to adopt practices that help build the soil, it helps mitigate against potential flooding and also helps them have a more resilient food system … in the face of heat waves, because there’s better moisture retention from soils that have been cared for really well.”

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