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Pemberton farmers emerge ‘lucky’ from heat wave

As hot, dry weather persists, local farmers reflect on impacts of record-breaking temperatures 
n-Pemby 1 Laughing Crow Sunflower Maze by stockstudioX GettyImages-1173395529
Laughing Crow Organics is preparing to open its annual sunflower maze to the public in August. The flowers are one plant that has thrived in this summer’s hot, dry conditions, says the Pemberton Meadows farm’s co-founder.

If you were hoping to score a few radishes in a recent veggie box delivery from Pemberton’s Laughing Crow Organics, you’re out of luck. 

After temperatures pushed past the 40-degree Celsius mark during last month’s record-breaking heat wave, “we pulled the covers off the radishes that we were going to deliver to our customers that week, and there was nothing left of them,” said Laughing Crow’s co-founder Andrew Budgell.

The farm lost a portion of its spring crops, like broccoli and cauliflower, while the heat even scorched carrot tops, explained Budgell said, adding that he and partner Kerry McCann were fortunate to escape mostly unscathed from the unprecedented heat event. 

“Essentially we got lucky in a lot of spots, and we got unlucky in a bunch of other spots,” he said. “Things evened-out and we’re all right, but it made us realize that in situations like that, luck is playing a massive role in our success. Which is, to some degree, quite frightening.” 

Across the valley at North Arm Farm, owner and West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy is also counting himself lucky after he said his property came “within millimetres of the whole farm being flooded” during the peak of the heat wave. 

North Arm’s staff went to work building nearly 215 metres of temporary dikes, Sturdy said. While the water thankfully held off, the farm still lost “quite a few” recent plantings, he added.  

The heat alone “puts tremendous stress on both plants and people, and, and frankly, cost as well, because we have been constantly irrigating right from the beginning of the season,” said Sturdy. “I don’t know what our total numbers look like so far, but we’ve spent more money irrigating this year than I think we’ve ever spent.”

And, Sturdy added, “Who’s coming out to the farm to buy anything when it’s 44 degrees?”  

Coupled with the seed costs of replacing the lost plants, lost tractor-time, a few lost days of productive farm labour, a reduced yield on some crops and the cost of the temporary dikes, the scorching temperatures cost North Arm “certainly in the tens of thousands of dollars,” said Sturdy. “No question about it.”

That said, the losses suffered in the Sea to Sky corridor appear minimal in comparison to those of prairie farmers who are seeing crops and pastures devastated by drought and grasshoppers, as well as B.C. shellfish farmers who reported huge numbers of Pacific oysters and clams lost during the hot weather. Farm Credit Canada announced July 20 that it’s offering a customer support program to western Canadian farmers who are facing production challenges due to the adverse growing conditions posed by the extremely hot, dry weather.

Conditions in Pemberton are currently listed as abnormally dry, compared to the severe or moderate drought conditions that municipalities in the Interior and Fraser Valley are experiencing. It’s listed by the province as falling into Drought Level 2—during which adverse effects are unlikely—on the province’s five-level drought rating scale. 

Pemberton is in a lucky position, said Budgell, largely because of its geography. “We’re in this unique spot where we have this incredible amount of water,” he said. 

But with the majority of alpine snow now melted and hot, dry weather expected to continue, how reliable are those water sources?

“We’re probably going to run out of water a few weeks early this year,” said Bruce Miller, the third-generation Pemberton farmer behind Across the Creek Organics. 

The water that services Miller’s property, shared by Laughing Crow Organics and The Beer Farmers, is sourced from a steep creek running down the nearby mountainside, collected into a basin. When the alpine snow is melted, that basin collects rainfall and residual groundwater from the soil. 

Miller said alternative options like pumping water from ditches, wells or nearby rivers exist, but aren’t attractive considering the major investment in gravity water he’s already made.

“We’ve got a couple miles of irrigation pipe buried all over the farm that [have] been set up for the last 40 years to make it work,” he said. “If we run out of water then we need to go back to diesel tractors and pumps.” 

Miller added, “If we had an inch of rain or something, that would replenish the whole water system that we have.” 

'There’s almost no plant, animal, or anything out there that wants 44 degrees of heat'

For Anna Helmer of Helmer’s Organic Farms, the hot temperatures have been a bigger issue for the farmer than her potato crops, she said. 

“It’s just been way too hot, so it’s hard to be productive,” Helmer said—a sentiment echoed by both Sturdy and Budgell

As temperatures continue to rise amid the climate emergency, “How are we going to function in 40[-degree weather], basically, is the question,” Helmer said. “I think the crops can be managed with irrigation and variety selections, but it’s just learning—it’s just farming.”  

Adapting to the heat has often meant earlier-than usual hours this summer, said Helmer, as well as the construction of one brand-new feature on her farm: an approximately nine-metre by nine-metre pond used for “very refreshing” hourly cool-offs. “It’s kept me going,” she said. 

When it comes to her crops, Helmer said they are about a week ahead of schedule, but was unsure whether to attribute that to the hot weather or a slightly earlier-than-usual planting date. She said she’s heard of some cases in the Fraser Valley where potatoes have even began sprouting in the ground, but prior to harvesting her own crops, “it’s just hard to say what the implications will be.”

On the brighter side, Helmer said her soil also remained damp long into the heat wave. When considering climate change, “Organic farming has always been touted as an important part of the solution because it does retain moisture and sure enough, ours has to a certain extent,” she said. “So I think we’re doing what we can in that respect. Our soil is not just dust; it’s not just to hold the plants upright. It’s to provide moisture and a habitat for all the bacterial and biological functions.”

Now that temperatures have ceased breaking records for the time being, local farmers are hoping the continued hot, dry conditions might even result in a few benefits: For example, “We’ll probably have a melon season in Pemberton like we’ve never seen before,” Budgell said. 

That, and a strong season for Laughing Crow Organics’ sunflower maze, currently slated to open in August.

“The sunflowers look incredible,” Budgell said. “There’s almost no plant, animal, or anything out there that wants 44 degrees of heat, but you certainly get a feel around the farm for what can handle it.” 

He added, “On a farm, it’s hard to turn on the sun. But if you can turn on the water and the sun keeps shining, you’re in a pretty good spot.”