While agriculture ministers met for their annual federal-provincial-territorial meeting last week, farmers across Canada were considering how their sector can change as they struggle with increasingly variable climate conditions.
“We’re definitely into a trend. I think we need to start looking for conversations around efficiency in our use of agricultural disasters, what type of mitigation we can have,” said Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA), referring to the number of communities that have declared agricultural disasters this season.
“Coming into a hotter and drier future, we’ve got to start having bigger discussions on how we can mitigate this for the long run.”
Canadian farmers have had a series of bad seasons over last few years. Severe drought and extreme heat in the summer of 2021 were devastating for many crop and livestock farmers, and 2022 followed with inflationary pressures from Russia’s war in Ukraine that raised prices for many farm inputs. As the 2023 season began, many farmers were hoping for better growing and market conditions, wrote CBC in April.
But a wet June has been followed by a dry July in some areas, particularly in Alberta and some parts of Saskatchewan. Crops and livestock in those regions have been hit hard and many municipalities have declared agricultural disasters—some of them for the second time in three years.
Although the declarations do not automatically trigger emergency funding for farmers, they make provincial and federal ministers aware of the severity of local growing conditions, says CBC.
McLauchlin said the changes in climate are prompting discussions about what the future of agriculture may look like in his province. Faced with similar conditions, he added, South Africa responded “by actually using the landscape to mitigate and create a more certain future, whether it was a better use of water, water recycling, check dams, and a lot of other conversations—even around crop choices.”
In Alberta, “at the end of this year, we need to start having those bigger conversations with multiple folks at the table, and decide how we’re going to take this on in the future.”
Variable weather patterns have taken their toll in other regions, as well. In Quebec, a combination of extreme heat and unseasonably heavy rain is devastating producers, with some farmers reporting they’ve lost up to half of their normal crop sales to weather.
The losses are prompting calls for better insurance programs to protect farmers as the season’s bad conditions suggest the shape of things to come. Stéphanie Forcier, director of Quebec’s association of strawberry and raspberry farmers, l’Association des producteurs de fraises et de framboises du Québec, said the current system forces farmers to choose what kinds of extreme weather they can afford to get insured for.
But that’s an increasingly challenging bet, one that no longer corresponds to the reality of an increasing number and variety of extreme weather events.
“We know this weather is going to be our ‘new normal’, so we need to be more prepared,” Forcier told CBC. “We need to have better insurance programs for the farmers.”
At their meeting in New Brunswick last week, agriculture ministers discussed the severity of current extreme weather events and committed to improve access to business risk management (BRM) programs for farmers. Among their announcements was a new model for the AgriStability program, which will now be offered to producers in a more flexible way.
“Close collaboration has enabled us to develop a new approach. And we will soon be able to offer, on an optional basis, a new model that will simplify enrolment and speed up the processing of the AgriStability program,” said federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.
The ministers also discussed possible changes to the AgriInsurance program. Those may include offering whole farm insurance—which could support diversification and reduce premiums—and piloting premium rebates for producers who adopt environmentally beneficial practices that reduce production risks.