Rob Galey of Galey Farms shows strawberries on his farm that have weathered the recent streak of unseasonably warm weather. Galey has invested in micro-irrigation to prepare his business for the regional effects of climate change. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Saanich farmer adapts to weather climate change

Rob Galey is crouching in the southwestern corner of a field growing strawberries – Albion strawberries, a California variety, to be precise. To the untrained eye, the field in rural Saanich stretches into the distance, but it is only a small part of the Galey Farms holdings.

As Galey runs his fingers through the leaves of one of the strawberry bushes and gently clasps one of its white flowers with his rough hands, he sounds like a proud father.

“We just had record heat, and still these plants look absolutely healthy,” he says. “So they are taking it very well.”

A half dozen or so workers wearing wide-rimmed hats but otherwise barely discernible move through the rows near the northeastern corner of the field.

It is late morning and the shapes in the distance are working underneath a grey sky in early August, just days after temperatures broke all sorts of records across British Columbia, including in Victoria, where one weather station did not record any rain at all in July.

“So dry weather actually works for me, not against me,” he says. “In the berry business, moisture is your enemy. You look at other farms that are growing other crops, probably not.”

With this comment, Galey cuts right to the circumstances that increasingly confront farmers across the region in the face of climate change: opportunities that did not exist in the past but also future dangers that require experimentation and adaption.

As Trevor Murdock and Stephen Sobie of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium wrote in a April 2017 report for the Capital Regional District, “within the context of a changing global climate, our region could see increased agricultural capacity and opportunities for a larger agricultural economy.”

Climate change promises to lengthen the growing season by reducing frost days and increasing days suitable for growing crops, something Galey has noticed himself.

“It has expanded, absolutely it has,” he says. The total growing season for various berries now starts in mid-May and extends to first frost in early-to-mid October. “I’m now up to five months a year,” he says.

If Murdock and Sobie are right, this growing window will only get larger.

“In the past, our region had an average of 267 days in the growing season,” they write. “We can expect 59 days will be added to the growing season by the 2050s, and 83 days by the 2080s, resulting in a nearly year-round growing season of 350 days, on average.”

But these positive conditions may prove to be illusory, as “the availability of water for agricultural use is likely to become a significant issue in the future” because higher temperatures will not only increase demand for water, but also decrease summer water levels in ponds, wetlands and streams used for irrigation.

Simply put, climate change will intensify competition among multiple users for an indispensable but increasingly scarce resource: water.

Its availability will also become more unpredictable by way of legislation and nature.

Farmers are subject to the Water Sustainability Act, with which the government can limit the amount of water that farmers can draw from bodies, wetlands, or streams during summer dry spells. Worse, climate change will create more extreme weather events.

Larger-than-usual amounts of rainfall could fall within a short period of time during the wrong time, creating the need for more. For example, spring storms could become more intense, flooding fields or damaging plants to the point of crop failure.

While these local predictions are general in nature, they underscore the potentially devastating effects of climate change on local farmers, farming communities and British Columbia.

Agriculture in B.C. accounts for about three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) responsible for climate change — a figure far below the contributions of other sectors. Yet farmers are among the British Columbians, whose economic fortunes explicitly hinge on the known and yet-to-be known effects of climate change, with repercussions extending far beyond mere economics.

Agriculture contributes about $1.5 billion to B.C.’s gross domestic product — just over half a per cent of the provincial total. But this ‘paltry contribution’ compared to other sectors obscures the sector’s larger significance.

Farming remains the social and economic thread that continues to bind many smaller communities across British Columbia (including Vancouver Island), and for all of the historic damage that human farming has caused to the natural environment and landscape of the province, it is part of a larger ecological web.

Finally, and more fundamentally, farming sustains human populations. Despite the ready availability of food products from every corner of the world, British Columbians overwhelmingly support local farming and farmers.

According to a 2018 report by the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, 81 per cent of British Columbians say that farming and food production should be a top priority for land in British Columbia. Ninety-two per cent of British Columbians agree with the statement that is is very important that the province produces enough food, so that it does not have depend as much on import from other places. Ninety-five per cent support the Agricultural Land Reserve and the policy of preserving farmland.

In short, political pressure to protect farm land against various threats is high, and the provincial government along with various municipal governments (including Saanich) have taken steps that address not only the general causes of climate change, but also mitigate its effects on agriculture. But these measures are running up against other interests (such as housing) and it is not entirely clear yet which of these interests will prevail.

Galey, for his part, is not waiting around in having recognized the effects of climate change and doing something about it for his business.

Five years ago, he started to use a micro-irrigation system for his berries to save water. He keeps himself informed about the latest techniques by routinely travelling to California, one of the largest producers of agricultural products in the world and one of the most impacted areas in North America when it comes to climate change.

While some of the techniques used cannot be imported without modification, they can help local farmers deal with the effects of climate change, if adapted to local conditions, he said.

Galey acknowledges that some of his measures like micro-irrigation won’t work for everybody. But he believes that his own experience is illustrative of what is possible.

“We have not run out of berries yet this year,” he said. “A lot of places have. We haven’t. There are a lot of people still doing conventional farming. So I definitely made the right choice for the future.”


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wolfgang.depner@saanichnews.com

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