Farmers are facing smaller crops and higher costs as parts of southern and eastern Ontario suffer through severe drought that is having an impact on fruit and vegetable production. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) says the regions northeast of Toronto and south of Ottawa have reached levels of drought only expected at this time of year once every two decades. The federal department, which gauges drought based on precipitation, temperature and evaporation data, says some corn and soybean farmers have already reported wilted plants and predict smaller crops this growing season. Jason Verkaik, chairman of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, says it’s the most arid transition from June to July that he’s ever seen.
“All we’ve been doing for the last three and half weeks is watering,” said Verkaik, who owns a vegetable farm in Ontario’s Holland Marsh. Even so, he said, some of his carrot crop has been “burning off,” suffering from the dryness and heat. Verkaik has been irrigating his crops 20 hours a day, six days a week in that period. In a year of more typical precipitation levels, he would have only spent three or four nights watering in June and July, he said. He added such high levels of watering can run up operating costs for farmers, with longer hours for workers and more money spent on fuel for watering pumps.
But those higher costs are not likely to be passed on to Ontario consumers, Verkaik said. The more likely outcome is that Ontario farmers have to take a loss in order to stay competitive with growers from the United States or Europe. Environment Canada says it’s the pattern of rainfall, not just the amount, that has made 2016 such a dry year. Ontario’s average rainfall for June is between 75 mm and 85 mm, and some areas in southern Ontario came close to that this year, said meteorologist Geoff Coulson. But much of that rainfall came during short, isolated shower bursts. “When that amount of rain is falling, 30 or 40 mm in the span of a few hours, if it’s hitting that hardpacked ground, a lot of that water is running off before it can soak in and really be beneficial,” Coulson said. Rain is expected over the weekend for parts of Ontario, but Coulson said dry conditions will continue next week. Not all produce growers are singing the drought blues. Matthias Oppenlaender, chairman of the Grape Growers of Ontario, said dry conditions reduce the diseases in grapes, and make for a “quality year.” “The grapes are very good still,” he said “They have deep roots (so) they get moisture. But we’re definitely looking for rain in the next two or three weeks.”