Durham Region farmers dealing with climate change

Gardens outside of Bistro 67 on Durham College's Whitby campus.

Being a farmer is hard work, especially today. Farmers in the Durham Region are having to deal with changes both within the industry and with nature. Climate change has made the work of a farmer even more challenging.

Increasingly, unpredictable seasonal weather has been one of the main reasons why many farmers have had to change their planting dates and how they proceed with harvesting of crops and managing livestock, according to Ryan Cullen, a part-time faculty member in the Horticulture program at Durham College and field supervisor at W. Galen Weston Centre for Food.

Cullen was introduced to horticulture while working abroad in southeast Asia.

“I started volunteering and interning on some permaculture projects in Thailand and really just fell in love with the idea of growing my own food but also growing food for communities of people,” said Cullen. “The other part of that too is the idea of being self-reliant and not being dependent on the industrial food system or crops being grown in other countries like Mexico and California.”

Today, Cullen is also concerned about climate change. One of the biggest changes he has seen to farming has been with weather.

Cullen said changes in climate over recent years has led to more volatile weather conditions including more floods and droughts.

“It’s affecting all farmers,” he said. “It’s changing the seasons, it’s changing the timing in which we can grow things, which affects what you can grow, it affects the seasonality of what you can grow and when you can bring things to the marketplace.”

With more volatile weather attributed to climate change, local farmers say insects and disease are increasingly affecting their crops.

Don Rickard is a fifth-generation farmer, who along his brother Jim, owns and operates Ceresmore Farms. The Rickard family has been farming on its land east of Bowmanville since the 1840s.

Rickard, who is a member of the Clarington Agricultural Advisory Committee, has seen a number of changes over his time as a farmer, including an increase in pests due to climate change. He said advancements in science have allowed for pesticides to aid in keeping crops healthy.

“We used to be in the orchard business and that used to be a moving target too, because as soon as you got some things under control, there was another insect or disease that seemed to be affecting you,” said Rickard. “So, science is working to keep us with the right tools and help us produce a healthy crop.”

With climate change affecting many of the ways farmers do their job, there are a number of ways in which they have adapted.

These include changing planting dates, planting different varieties of crops, improving irrigation system for crops, changing in fertilizers and farming methods, adding new crop species and improving fire management systems.

Cullen said storing carbon in the soil is another way that farmers can aid in reducing the effect of climate change.

“We have all these high levels of carbon in the atmosphere and the whole push is to try and pull it out of the atmosphere,” he said. “Well, the most efficient way to store carbon in the soil is through grassland and to reinvigorate the grassland with animal systems.”

Cullen says there are many ways people living in urban areas can support farmers.

“The more the average day citizen can go buy food from a local producer to support local businesses, support the local economy, go to farmer’s markets and buy their groceries from local grocers instead of Walmart and big box stores, the better,” said Cullen, “and if they’re growing their own food and are capable of it, grow more and encourage others to do the same.”