Prolonged drought ‘significantly’ affecting local agriculture production

As the region’s farmers settle into the typically dry and warm summer months, a prolonged drought and lack of moisture are already starting to affect production. 

It’s only the beginning of the warmest months of the year, but farmer Michelle Herrle said her family’s farm has already been “significantly” affected. 

“We have a pick-your-own strawberry patch and with this incredible heat, the season is just going at a whirlwind pace because the berries are ripening really quickly,” said Herrle, of Herrle’s Country Farm Market. 

“Many of our fields we can irrigate, so we are doing that, but that is a lot of additional work of moving pipes, setting up reels in the middle of the night, turning pumps on, turning pumps off, changing reels.”.

Herrle’s Country Farm Market operates a pick-your-own strawberry patch, but Michelle Herrle says ‘with this incredible heat, the season is just going at a whirlwind and pace because the berries are ripening really quickly, and so obviously we need rain.’ (Submitted by Herrle’s Country Farm Market)

The farm has been around since 1964, when Howard and Elsie Herrle began growing a few acres of sweet corn and selling it from their garage. The Herrle name soon became known for its fresh-from-the-field sweet corn.

Herrle told CBC News the drought has also meant that farming is much more labour intensive.

“Many different responsibilities are added whenever you have the burden of meeting to irrigate because rain hasn’t come,” she said.

“So that is a significant challenge right, just sort of the drought in the intense heat.”

The storefront at Herrle’s Country Farm Market. (Herrle’s Country Farm Market)

‘Unusually hot and dry weather’

Meanwhile, Mark Reusser, a vice-president with Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said most crops in Waterloo region need about 20 to 30 millimetres of rain a week. But with no significant rainfall in about three weeks’ time, Reusser said many farmers are getting concerned about their yield.

“I think that every year we have periods when we don’t get as much rain as we like or less than the ideal. This year is a little bit different in that the temperature is so high at the same time that it’s dry,” said Reusser, who represents Zone 9 – Dufferin, Waterloo and Wellington.  

“It’s very very unusual that we get 30 degree-plus temperatures without any rain for maybe two weeks, perhaps going on three weeks, according to the forecast. That’s a long time to have high temperatures and no rain at all.”

‘A triple whammy’

Reusser said the region’s farmers are facing a “triple whammy” between the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of rain and a crisis with labour, all within a period of a couple of months.

“It causes a great deal of anxiety amongst farmers. We’re used to dealing with crises, but perhaps not used to dealing with so many crises all at the same time,” Reusser said.

Mark Reusser, a Waterloo County farmer, is vice president of the the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. (Ontario Federation of Agriculture)

He said the provincial government has “been very accommodating,” helping to provide both advice and some funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) for farmers to use.

“We’re wishing that this thing [COVID-19] would go away obviously, because everything takes longer to do, everything costs more money,” he said. 

Decreased demand for chicken and turkey

In the face of three crises, Reusser said farmers are also dealing with a decrease in demand for certain products.

“Demand for chicken and turkey has decreased by about 15 per cent since COVID started and most of that is due to the fact that fast food [establishments] and restaurants are selling less of those products,” Reusser explained.

“If we get an adequate amount of rain, this type of weather is wonderful for growing everything that farmers produce. It’s just that you need rain to go along with the heat. if we don’t get rain by the end of the week then the crisis will certainly get worse.

“We’re hoping that we get something here on Friday or sooner. Farmers farmers are eternal optimists but sometimes it gets a little draining when it just doesn’t rain and the temperature is just unrelenting,” Reusser added.

High level of anxiety

Pointing out that farmers are self employed, Reusser said “the level of anxiety is high”  right now, because the fact that if it rains or not determines whether or not this would be a year when they make money.

“We don’t get a pay cheque every week, we don’t get a pay cheque every month. Often we get a pay cheque once or twice a year, and if we don’t get that pay cheque, things aren’t good,” he said.

“We’re used to dealing with anxiety but at this point with all these crises happening at the same time, the toll on mental health can be great.”

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