I was invited as a panelist/speaker for a Climate Change Adaptation session. The intent of the organizers was to talk about the physical adaptations of climate change in agriculture but this is what they got because if we don't deal with the big picture we won't be able to deal with the details of climate change anyway.
Here it is:
I was all ready to give an analysis of the changes in weather patterns, which may turn out to be a permanent climate change, how they have affected our farm and how we have dealt with them. But another approach has been building in my head since I was asked in January to participate in this session.
So I am throwing caution to the wind and I’m going to tell the story of how climate has and continues to change our farm and how we are just one small entity trying to operate within the bigger picture. Disclaimer: I am certainly not trying to single anyone out and fully acknowledge that there are many proponents of agriculture both in government and in society as a whole. But something is not adding up. Dealing with climate change is a much more complex problem than just the weather changes and challenges we will undoubtedly face. In the end, it’s not the details of how we deal with climate change that will determine our success or failure as an industry it is the man-made forces that are now more of a factor than the natural forces that are going to determine our fate.
The weather will likely continue to change. We are told to expect more extremes in temperature, moisture, and wind. Basically a loss of stability that our industry so dearly needs for farms and farming families to survive into the future. Agriculture requires continuous commitment, dedication, and investment for decades and generations in order to prosper. It is very much the long game and for that reason often doesn’t fare well in the modern political spectrum The farming community has proven that it is resourceful many times over in the last decades just to continue to exist and for that reason, I am very sure we will meet the challenges of climate change itself and prosper despite the challenges. The fact that we have survived against seemingly impossible odds for so long has only contributed to the belief that we will survive the next wave of whatever is thrown at us. What is absolutely not clear is whether the man-made political and social climates will give us the priority and opportunity we need to be strong enough to adapt to climate change.
It is almost impossible as an industry in a small corner of the earth to noticeably alter climate change; although we have and will continue to do our part. Our best hope lies in altering the societal and political climate to work with us to solve the big "elephant in the room" problem that has made every hiccup into a crisis, and that is the lack of profitability in the sector because we tow the line on social values but are rarely compensated for it. An obvious potential problem with our California-like summers is a seasonal water deficit and the conflict with various non-farming neighbours over what is acceptable and if money has to be spent to find ways to conserve aquatic wildlife for the sake of all of society; who should pay that bill? With the current open borders to foreign produce, I strongly disagree with those that say the farmer should pay.
So. A bit about Elmridge Farm and how the climate and winds of change have shaped us into what we are and continue to throw seemingly insurmountable challenges our way. I hope an analysis of how climate change has interacted with other factors in our business is a catalyst for thought.
We started off very small in the early 1990’s retailing vegetables at the Halifax city Farmers Market and at the same time tried to develop some wholesale business that was headed to the big box stores. It wasn’t long before we dropped the big box wholesale and concentrated on supplying our farmers market clientele and selling to small independent grocers. We certainly weren’t profitable at first but our profitability relies heavily on taking advantage of the increasingly early springs and long warm falls to lengthen what I would consider our high season. The time when we have an abundance of produce and sales are high.
The way our business profitability works is that at the first of the season we start with the first early products and keep adding new veggies as they become ready in the field until we have pretty much everything we grow available for sale. The high season either comes to an abrupt end with an early killing frost or slowly through attrition, so to speak. Generally the more weeks we can be at full production the better we do financially. If the season gets shortened at the front end by a cold spring or by a killing frost it is the high season weeks we lose and along with it much of our profitability.
That’s where the volatility of the weather over the last three years has really hurt us. The entire industry worldwide has had to take bigger risks to stay in business and that includes pushing the envelope on what we grow and how far out of season we dare to grow it. The globalization of the food industry has also made storing product for winter sale much less profitable than it once was because worldwide supply keeps the price of storable products from rising in the off season like they once did.
We will continue to plant as early as possible and push as late into the fall as we can for now. Three shortened season in a row is not enough to say that it is a permanent change.
Anyone who knows us is aware that we grow a dizzying array of vegetables as a result of trying to grow as much as we could for the farmers markets we attend. We also have thousands of retail customers and over a hundred wholesale customers. The unfortunate reality is that the wide diversity of crops will do us no good as we are in the process of becoming less diversified as a result of social/ political forces. The complexities of new food safety regulations have left us struggling to comply and have rendered a number of the smaller volume crops no longer feasible. On top of that, there has been a rapid increase in labour costs. Every $1 increase in minimum wage costs our farm $70,000 dollars. Since 2018 the minimum wage has increased by $2.50 which means that compared to 2018 we will have to make $175,000 more in profit to be at the same level as we were in 2018. The obvious answer is that we need to reduce labour costs by eliminating as much labour as possible. The problem with automation is that it doesn’t lend itself well to diversity because machines are nowhere near as multitalented as humans and generally, horribly expensive so to mechanize you need to pick the crops you can do volumes of. Crop diversity is touted as the answer to stability but the social and political climate has rendered it useless.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom. It’s not in my DNA to give up or even back down, for that matter. Stability is something that we really lack on a farm that specializes in fresh vegetables. They are easily damaged by any number of things, weather events being a big factor. They are also extremely perishable so we have no wiggle room on the window of opportunity to market them. When they are ready they have to go. Heat waves, prolonged wet spells or hurricanes can easily change consumers focus away from fresh produce for a time and product can end up left in the field on account of that.
So, how to gain some stability? Basically, take the lemons and see if you can come up with lemonade. We are building a new facility with the aim of taking surplus, damaged or cosmetically challenged vegetables and turning them into value-added dehydrated products like pet treats, pet food ingredients, soup mixes, dehydrated powders and ingredients≥. Hopefully, this takes care of the obvious problem of crops lost to weather events in one way or another. But it also creates a new revenue stream out of a product that previously had very little or no value to us. It also adds some stability back into our business in the form of shelf-stable product to help offset some of the stability we are losing to more volatile weather.
Our society has become ever more removed from nature and complacent about its grip on us but agriculture is where humanity still meets reality and every farmer can attest to how precarious our food supply really is. I am often more amazed that we can keep it all together and put food on tables than I am shocked by the devastation we sometimes face. Food supply is taken for granted by most of our society and in a country seemingly on a safety crusade, there is nothing safe about a struggling agricultural industry.
Agriculture is the third-largest industry in Nova Scotia and any support and consideration given to agriculture will come back to benefit the entire province in the form of a vibrant, profitable industry that can withstand change and will strengthen our society.
Keep eating your veggies.