Bone Dry Conditions Worry Niagara Farmers

July 7, 2016 | St Catharines Standard

by Maryanne Firth
'Rescue rains’ are not yet on the way to save Niagara from arid conditions.

Despite a forecast calling for possible showers Friday and Saturday, Environment Canada senior climatologist Dave Phillips says it will yield no more than a drop in the bucket needed by the region.

Lawns in Niagara will remain yellow, temperatures will remain high and public pools will remain packed for the foreseeable future.

It’s an issue being seen across the province as areas of Ontario combat drought conditions.

“In the Niagara area it’s particularly bone dry,” Phillips said, adding in the past month the region has seen only 20 to 25 per cent of its average precipitation.

But it’s not the dry weather alone that is posing a challenge.

The area is being hit with a “double whammy” due to the consistently high temperatures pushing the mercury past 30°C, he said.

Most years, Niagara only has two to four of those high-heat days by this point in the summer. Instead, the region has seen about two weeks worth.

“Every bead of moisture that exists in the ground or in the vegetation is being sucked up by the atmosphere,” Phillips said. “It’s that combination of very warm temperatures and very dry conditions, strong winds and lots of sunshine that’s just drying everything out. It’s not looking pretty.”

And relief is not in sight.

“What we’re going to see over the next couple of days is not the rescue rains that we need,” he said, adding Niagara is about 100 millimetres shy of where it should be for this time of year. That does not account for the additional precipitation needed to offset this summer’s continued above-average temperatures, which are expected to stick around well into August.

The region needs four or five days, each with 20 to 25 mm of rain, to even make a dent in what’s needed, Phillips said.

“What you want is the kind of rain that would ruin your holidays. The kind where you’d be playing Scrabble or video games in a cabin or cottage, where it’s just day after day of moisture.

“We’re not going to see this thing end very soon. … These little teasers of precipitation are just not going to do it.”

The dry conditions are taking a toll on Niagara’s agricultural sector.

Joseph Schonberger, president of the Niagara South Federation of Agriculture, said his crops are nowhere near where they should be for the time of year.

“They’ve been in for about six weeks and they’re about four inches high,” he said of his soybeans. “It’s starting to hurt.”

But Schonberger, with land just east of Welland, said he’s faring better than some other Niagara farmers he’s spoken with, thanks in part to sporadic minor rainfalls being seen in the area.

Every drop of rain makes a difference, he said, though he’s hoping for a downpour.

“It’s dry out there, but I’ve seen worse,” he said, recalling a season five or six years ago when most of his crops “all withered and died. “If we catch a few lucky rains then it doesn’t become an issue, but it’s starting to get ugly out there.”

While heat is good for the crops, the lack of water is problematic.

Because of the acreages used for field crops, irrigation is often not an option, Schonberger said.

“You just hope the weather turns around and you carry crop insurance that covers your losses, hopefully. It’s all you can do. You don’t control the weather. That’s Farming 101.”

Phil Tregunno, chairman of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers, said many of the farmers he represents benefit from the use of irrigation, which is “keeping (crops) alive right now.”

But those watering systems come at a price.

“It becomes a high-cost crop if you have to do a lot of irrigating,” he said, as it “adds a lot of labour and definitely a lot of diesel to pump water.”

Irrigation, which during some years isn’t used at all, also means an issue with inconsistent watering, as some rows of produce are typically missed as a result, the owner of Tregunno Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake said.

He still has high hopes for this year’s crops, which save the drought have had “perfect conditions” to grow.

High heat means flavourful fruit with high sugar content, but dryness will affect the size of the produce if the lack of rain continues.

That’s of particular concern with the popular peach season right around the corner.

“This is a really critical time right now. It’s your final ripening time,” Tregunno said. “If we get rain in the next seven to 10 days it will really boost up the tonnage.”

If rainfall doesn’t come, it could mean a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in the crop, he added.

The situation is not yet dire for local grape farmers.

“We do prefer a dry year, however, this is getting too dry now. We’re looking for rain,” said Matthias Oppenlaender, chairman of the board of directors for Grape Growers of Ontario.

Many grape growers use irrigation systems, which have kept farms in “decent shape,” but the dryness has posed concern for those without that benefit, he said.

“For people who can’t irrigate, we need rain in July for sure. Everyone is looking to the sky.”

While grapes prefer dry, warm conditions, “balance is key,” Oppenlaender said, adding “adequate moisture” is required.

The progress of crops remains on track for harvest in mid-September.

The dry weather has not had an impact on lake levels, which remain where they ought to be, Niagara Region public works commissioner Ron Tripp said.

There are no immediate or foreseeable concerns with water supply levels available from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

That means no water use restrictions are expected to be imposed, despite the drought-like conditions.

Tripp said it’s likely been about 30 years since such restrictions were put in place, when a flat rate was charged for usage prior to metered water being implemented by municipalities.

People are now more environmentally and economically conscious of their water usage, he added.

If a restriction were to be imposed, it would be implemented by the Region, “but it doesn’t seem realistic we would face that unless something completely unforeseen happens.”