This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
One of the great dysfunctions of the modern era arises from the disconnect between rural and urban communities. Politicians may visit every part of the country in order to promise everything to everyone, but there isn’t a lot of dialogue between the 82 per cent of Canadians who live in cities and the less than 2 per cent of our workforce employed in agriculture. (Compare that to 100 years ago, when it was the number-one occupation, accounting for a third of all jobs.) Even as a food writer, it’s too rare that I get to speak with farmers.
That’s why I was startled when a researcher told me that, as recently as 10 years ago, a majority of farmers still didn’t believe in climate change.
Looking for more first-hand information, I reached out to an Ontario farmer to get his account of how climate change has affected his work, home, and community.
“I’ve been farming for 40 years, and I am completely perplexed by the changing weather in the last decade,” says Bryan Gilvesy, cattle rancher and CEO of Alternative Land Use Services, a national non-profit that helps promote sustainable farming and ranching.
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Before raising beef, YU Ranch — located in Norfolk County, south of Tillsonburg — grew tobacco.
“Here in this community, which at one time had 3,000 farmers, we all said, ‘Smoking doesn’t kill you’ for years and years because we knew one guy that smoked till he was 90,” he says. “As a community, we were in denial.”
Gilvesy’s grandfather started the farm in 1930. And, for most of the 20th century, there was a lot of pride in growing tobacco. So it was hard for Gilvesy and others to accept what was being said about the link between smoking and cancer. He says that tobacco farmers once viewed Garfield Mahood — who in 2007 received the Order of Canada for his anti-smoking advocacy — as Darth Vader.
“It’s funny how long it takes you to come to grips with the reality that’s staring you in the face,” he says.
And he sees the same cycle playing out with climate change. "I believe that farmers feel the conversation around climate and any issue is an attack on them,” he says. “I think that’s the prevailing psychology."
In 1993, Gilvesy got out of the tobacco business. Two years later, after the birth of their first child, his wife insisted on feeding them the cleanest possible beef. He saw her concerns about how cattle were being raised as reflections of issues in the larger market. So the family transitioned to raising grass-fed and hormone-free beef, which then barely existed as an industry.
Typically, in the cattle business, production takes place in separate locations. After calves are weaned, they are put on a truck and taken to another farm, where they are raised as the next weight class, stockers. At this stage, they come off grass and their mothers’ milk, and when they’re at a suitable weight, they are placed in an industrial feed lot. There, they get feed — corn and sometimes barley — with antibiotics and growth-hormone implants in the ears.
“When you lock cattle in a pen and feed them from a monoculture food source — say, corn — the energy that drives your business is fossil fuel,” Gilvesy says, “because the fertilizers, the pesticides, all the trucking and transportation, all that, comes from fossil fuels.”
On Gilvesy’s farm, where cattle are raised from calf to finish, grass is grown as part of a polyculture, with no fertilizer. So the grass, which takes energy from the sun, via photosynthesis, and carbon from the atmosphere, turns into fuel for the cattle. One of the challenges of this system is that it takes more time and space to raise cattle.
“If I turn it over to a feed lot, I can grow millions of cattle in the same acreage,” says Gilvesy, whose herd is a little over 200.
“It’s important to understand what a farm does — whatever crop we’re growing, it’s photosynthesis, grabbing energy from the sun, and pulling CO2 down from the atmosphere,” he adds. “And in that lies some clues for how we can be more resilient in the future and how we can be net contributors to climate-change action.”
For starters, the act of sequestering carbon from the sky improves soil and makes a seed bed more fertile. But the major benefit is that, for every 1 per cent gain in soil’s organic matter, it will hold 25,000 gallons per acre more water from a rainfall. That means that a farmer’s soil will hold on to that valuable moisture at every opportunity, rather than simply letting it run off into creeks. And, as a result, downstream communities are at less risk of flooding.
As the CEO of Alternative Land Use Services, Gilvesy works with other farmers to find nature-based solutions for Canadian agriculture. There are more than 23,000 acres of land enrolled in the program, over six provinces.
“A lot of our efforts in Alberta are focused on flood management, by having farmers build new wetlands or building the organic matter of the soil,” Gilvesy says. “And that’s what we open up, the ability for the soil to behave as a sponge and absorb more water. You want that to go into the soil not into the creek — especially these days, when the rain events come hard and fast. And, if you think about floods like the Calgary foods, that upstream resilience has value.”
This isn’t about converting conventional farmers completely over to a new system: in many cases, it involves identifying a minority portion of their land that could be reallocated to better soil use. For example, a farm growing corn and soy beans for feed-lot cattle may have a piece of land that’s growing crops but not generating sufficient revenue, perhaps as a result of poor drainage.
“Year after year, they throw fertilizer and pesticide at it and get not a very good yield, and they may even be losing money,” Gilvesy says. “So we say, grow another product on that land.”
On these marginal plots of land, ALUS helps plant native species of grass and trees that aid carbon sequestration and support biodiversity, creating habitats for pollinators.
“And that land will now filter nutrients out and hold moisture so you get cleaner water going downstream,” Gilvesy says. “A whole complex series of benefits flows from changing the thought on that particular acreage.”
Complicating the attempt to promote farmer action on climate change is a belief that climate change could actually bring economic benefits for the country — and its farmers. In an August op-ed for the Financial Post, former federal finance minister Joe Oliver wrote, “Canada is a very large, cold country, with 90 per cent of its population huddled within 100 miles of its southern border and an enormous agricultural potential if the land warms up.”
Gilvesy says he’s heard similar sentiments from others in the agricultural community: it’s “the dirty little secret of Canadian agriculture — there are whispers going around that climate change will open up opportunities for the Canadian farmer.”
Yes, some agricultural products, such as cherries, will have longer growing seasons. But cherry farmers have no way of knowing how altered soil-moisture patterns will affect post-harvest deficit irrigation or how big a threat thrips (a pest that multiples in warmer weather) will pose to potato yields. And the wheels are about to fall off the entire concept of crop insurance, which at least partly buffers farmers from the devastating financial losses that result from increasingly randomized weather patterns. The system cannot sustain the increasing regularity of crop failure.
So boasting that climate change is going to be good for farming is like bragging that a house fire has saved you the trouble of cleaning out the attic.
“It’s a certain level of ignorance and smugness,” says Gilvesy. “We don’t know what the weather patterns are going to do. That to me, is the biggest challenge facing us as farmers: making ourselves resilient for weather patterns that can go either way.”