There’s this familiar story that climate change is mostly going to mean good news for our food system. If the days are getting warmer, the story goes, farmers in the Maritimes will have more days to grow food, and the chance to grow different crops. Isn’t it a win-win?
Two summers ago, I borrowed a pickup truck, threw my tent in the back, grabbed a handful of car snacks, and drove off to interview farmers across the Maritimes about how they were seeing weather patterns change, and what they were doing about it. (The snacks were mostly M&Ms; I mostly slept in fields. No one ever said research was glamorous.)
Camping at the end of the field: no one said research was glamorous, but it sure is pretty.
What I found out spelled bad news: what so many, governments included, think is a win-win is probably not. The farmers I spoke to talked about the warm days increasing, yes, but also of all the troubles the rising temperatures have brought. Springs are wetter, which makes it more difficult for soil to dry out and be prepared before planting. The falls are warmer, but the light hasn’t changed—meaning that most plants are still going into dormancy around the same time.
Climate change is also bringing other challenges to producing food in the Maritimes. Visiting different farmers across the region, I heard a lot about more intense and constant winds, which tear at plastic and stress plants. Farmers in New Brunswick told me about sea level rise and flooding; growers in Cape Breton, about more frequent hurricanes.
These observations aren’t yet in the scientific literature: the growers who participated have helped inform a whole new set of climate data. Farmers, it’s often said, are the ultimate applied scientists. To a researcher like me, their perspective is deeply valuable and useful.
I also heard about the ways that people are changing the way they farm to suit new rhythms. In Hants County, I saw experimental hoophouses that could shed snow load and grow tonnes of tomatoes. On the Acadian peninsula, new co-operatives are springing up to make it easier for farmers to share the load of going to market, and increasing profits in the meantime. Everyone knows that the weather is changing, and everyone is adapting as best they can.
Hoophouses help with season extension, but are vulnerable to the growing number of high winds and storms.
Farming has always been about watching the weather and being flexible. But what happens when the shock to the system is too much to recover from? What if, as flexible as our farmers are, something snaps?
David Blanchard puts away the row cover that protects his corn from insects and frosts.
My research project, Climate Resilience on Maritime Farms, tries to help build the adaptive capacity of the food system—to identify and build up the things that help us be flexible and strong under stressors like climate change. Over the next few years, we’ll be talking to governments and larger organizations to see how they can help the efforts that have started on the ground, and trying to build dialogue between farmers and other institutions.
If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out the Climate Resilience on Maritime Farms project website (https://www.bernardsoubry.com/crmf/); read our policy briefs and our working papers; or just get in touch with questions or comments you might have.
Guest Blog by Bernard Soubry.
Bernard Soubry is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, and a former farming apprentice from Hants County, NS.