Planet on Fire

By Cam Mather

(Note from Michelle: Cam actually wrote this post in late May but I forgot to post it until now. Interestingly enough, the summer has carried on as it began with record high temperatures and the worst drought that we’ve experienced in our 14 years here at Sunflower Farm.)

I’ve noticed a strange tone in recent gardening columns in newspapers. Gardeners seem to think that climate change is pretty good. One gardener claimed, “If this is global warming, I’m in favour.” This comes from a gardener who has a garden plot in an allotment, so let’s say it’s probably about 20 by 30 feet. Easy to maintain and big enough to provide salads for about two months. Eating anything else for the rest of the year doesn’t seem to concern this type of gardener!

It really should though because the weather we are experiencing here in Ontario is absolutely brutal. After the winter that wasn’t we experienced summer heat in the spring. Early in March we had two weeks of summer that was bizarre. People loved it. Weather forecasters were like rock stars. “Hey isn’t this patio weather awesome?” It sure is, if you just want to consume alcohol and eat finger foods, but if you want a secure food supply, this is a nightmare scenario.

All those poor trees that are used to a gradual warming got tricked. They decided it was time to go. And off they went. Their leaves and blossoms began to develop. And then just as their blossoms were in full bloom, we got three nights of frost. In a typical spring the trees know to wait. But not this year. The knowledge they have built up over eons in their DNA went out the window, as did their fruit. The frost devastated much of the fruit crop in Ontario. I found this CBC news report on Chudleigh’s apple orchard in Milton heartbreaking to watch. A large percentage of their apple crop was killed by this freaky spring weather.

The maple syrup producers in our region were also adversely affected by crazy spring weather. They produced about 40% of their usual output. The maple trees got confused with the heat wave in March too. Amazing how two crazy weeks of heat can damage a food supply.

In my gardening zone, it’s considered safe to plant your garden during the Victoria Day weekend, which usually falls around the 24th of May. This year it was a bit earlier – Victoria Day was on May 21st. In the 14 years that we’ve lived here, most of our Victoria Day weekends have been cold and rainy. I always feel a little sorry for the campers and cottagers in the area who have traveled all this way just to sit inside and watch the cold rainfall. But this year, the Victoria Day weekend was more like July. The temperatures were in the range of 25° to 30° C (77 – 86° F). It was a prime planting weekend for me and I had plenty to accomplish in the garden and not enough time to get it all done.  And it felt like July. I made sure to get out there by 6 a.m. and it was hot by 9 a.m and pretty unbearable by noon.

I know, as a gardener I should love this weather. But planting 50 different varieties of vegetables like I do, there is a rhythm required to get everything in. You start planting when it’s cool. As the temperature gradually increases you get more planted, but you ramp up. Your body acclimatizes to the heat. All the early planting is done in cool weather so you don’t get as fatigued. Planting a full garden in July heat is just not do-able over the long haul.

Cottagers loved the weekend. People raved about the weather. And yet all I could do was shake my head at the implications. It reminds me of the many videos taken during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. I feel like the guy on the balcony yelling at the people on the beach who are oblivious to what’s happening. I can see the wave and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is not normal and that it is going to have a very bad outcome. But those people just keep on frolicking on the beach thinking shiny happy thoughts.

I wish I could think shiny happy thoughts about climate change. Unfortunately I feel I have a unique perspective on it. I’m trying to grow food in a sustainable, low carbon input way. I don’t own a tractor. I don’t have municipally supplied water or electricity. So other than the gas for rototiller, I have to supply all the energy inputs myself, from the sun and wind to pump water and for me personally to do the planting and weeding and watering (fueled by Michelle’s awesome granola.)

And you know what? It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. It would be way easier if I had a big tractor and specialized pieces of equipment to do all the work. But if I did, I’d end up getting specialized in growing just one thing. And I’d be reliant on diesel. And with oil at $110/barrel it becomes obvious to me that input costs are going to rise, to the point of potentially being uneconomic.

So I keep trying to figure out how to grow at a sustainable level. And this bloody hot weather is making it significantly harder.

Sometimes I think I should move back to suburbia. Get a job. And jump in my crossover SUV and drive to a cottage every weekend. Drive a jet ski. Grill steaks. Fly south for a week in the winter. And just forget this whole global warming thing.

But that only works as long as someone else is out there growing your food. Right now the weather forecasters, who are raving about this awesome weather, will casually mention “… but we could use some rain for the lawns.” For the lawns? Is that your priority? We could use some rain so farmers can GROW FOOD!

Here in Canada less than 40 percent of us elected a majority Conservative government that seems hell bent on ignoring climate change. Stephen Harper (who raged on about a Liberal “omnibus” bill years ago) introduced his first majority budget’ an omnibus 400-page blockbuster that manages to reduce things like environmental assessments for tar sands pipelines, so we can burn up our natural gas by shipping low quality bitumen to China. And really, putting a pipeline through pristine Northern BC mountain ranges is such a no-brainer, who needs an environmental assessment for such a great plan?

The Stephen Harper Government had put some money aside for the eco-Energy Audit program that would help homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient. But they chose a Sunday morning to announce that they had canceled the program, probably so that no one else could sign up for it if they caught wind it was going to be ended prematurely. Ah sorry, my cynicism is showing. Might as well book my winter vacation in Mexico now.

7 Responses to “Planet on Fire”

  • Glee:

    Hi Cam and Michelle,

    I am reading about your struggles this year, and I have to say I admire your tenacity. I live in Michigan and the drought here is severe. The heat has been opressive as well. We lost half of our meat chicks and had to re-order. We provided more shade and the new batch seem to be OK. Watering the garden is a priority. The raised beds dry out pretty fast in spite of heavy mulching. It was late getting planted because we moved it to a sunnier spot and enlarged it by four times. Hauling dirt for the raised beds took its toll. Without the neighbor’s tractor with front loader it would still be going on. As it is we are getting tomatoes and beans and will have potatoes soon. The melons are struggling, the zucchini is blossoming. Something ate all the corn plants. Next year I will surround it with deer netting. Our new fruit trees are making it – just with some help from us. Hauling those buckets of water is hard. I have no idea what will come next, but it feels like another shoe will drop – maybe in the form of an extra hard, cold winter. Nature has a way of balancing things out, and that means lots of cold and lots of precipitation – snow (brrr) I can’t see how people being concerned over global warming is going to change anything. There are too many greedy people out there that will charge on ahead regardless. The wealthy and powerful will do anything to maintain their lifestyle. Us little people need to be resillient and grow our own food as much as possible and help each other out. Prices of things are going to go through the roof.

    I love reading your posts. Keep them coming!

  • Connie Murray:

    Weather is always unpredictable but lately its been downright bizarre. Can’t imagine what we’ll get next — a heat wave, a blizzard? Warm all last winter with no snow at all. Spring non-existent. Summer drier than bones. Beefsteak tomatoes non-existent. Zucchinis, small and few in number. Corn shriveled up. We had a catastrophic water main break and lost water service for 2 weeks. We weren’t allowed to use water to drink or to water plants. For days, the township passed out bottled water. Am seriously considering putting in a well.

  • Blanche H.:

    Cam,
    LISTEN TO RON HOOVER!!!!
    We want you to continue

  • Kitty H:

    Just a wee side note Cam & Company. I’ve been researching winter 2012-2013, and it appears that it is going to be harsh and very snowy. Of course, climate change deniers will have a field day, but the trend is still the same–hot and dry. The weather up here in the Appalachians has fluctuated a lot this summer. Coolish and wet for part of June. Hot and dry most of July. Now August is cool and pretty wet for us. We get late blight on tomatoes in this kind of weather. Every day I go out and urge my tomatoes to get red. I hope they are listening. Today it’s warm with heavy clouds. No rain so far, but we shall see this evening.

  • Cam
    Come over to the “Dark side” and become more mechanized.
    You can still grow food organically but use a tractor for tilling the land and providing extra power for pumps etc.
    A small tractor say a JD Model M (there are lots but I grew up using one of those and I have a soft spot in my heart for the M) and a couple of attachments will work in small areas and I am not sure why you say it will force you to become specialized in one crop.
    My parents uses a setup like this and their garden is maybe 1/2 – 3/4 of an acre. The ability to haul water from a nearby river and pump it has saved their garden and the hot weather sure has made the corn come in early.
    A shovel is a tool. A rotor tiller is a tool. So is a tractor. Yes it uses oil and their are expenses but it will
    1) Make you more productive
    2) Save your body and allow you to work longer
    3) allow you to bring more fine food to a larger part of the population at a reasonable cost.

    Tractors do not equal bad. (T=!b) 🙂

    I admire your determination to be carbon neutral but how far do you take it? I am trying to remember how much fuel a M would use , I think it is a pretty economical tractor, I think I could use it for most of the day without filling up and that might be 10-12 gallons (imperial)
    I do not know how much you would use it but say you used 100 gallons a year , say about $600. Add another $500 in for maintenance etc, some years nothing some years more.
    Add in $3-4000 for capital cost (you could probably pick an M up for 2-3K plus you need a plow and cultivator etc. spread out over 5 years with interest make it an even $6-800 a year for a payback of 5 years
    I do not know enough about how much you charge and the number of customers you have but could you quadruple your output?
    If that is not is the picture how about hiring a tractor or a day. I think I remember reading a post you made where you did have a tractor on site so I know cannot be 100% opposed to mechanization.
    Your pretty hard core but the posts you have made lately seems to indicate that the stress is getting to you.
    Hang in there and keep fighting , but think about trading in the knife for a gun.

  • I too am concerned. Here (Pacific Northwest and on an island to boot)our weather has been just the opposite. We had one day last week that hit 90 but the rest of the summer has struggled to get out of the 60’s. Right now I am looking at my fog shrouded garden and wondering how much blight I will find when I go down there. Five days ago I pulled up the last of the sugar snap peas to make way for a fall and winter garden. We have a ton of potatoes but they have a kind of watery taste as if they have had too much rain. The squash is just beginning to bloom and the zucchini makes little promising zuchs that turn brown and fall off the plant. I run around the garden with my little paint brush “fertilizing ” every blossom I can find and leave the clover in the grass unmowed in the hopes that it will attract a few bees. I’m sure there will be no pumpkin, squash, or ripe tomatoes (I have green)so I am hoping for a better fall and winter garden.

    As far as that pipeline here is a very good article on how far they will go to get what they want. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/08/us/old-texas-tale-retold-farmer-vs-transcanada.html Your property isn’t even safe from a company in another country let alone your own government. So much for freedom. All in the name of making a dirty dollar in China.
    The drought in the Midwest is already driving up prices of feed and food. So I along with other bloggers that I read are trying to stockpile and can some things. I fear a rough ride and it wont be over soon.

  • Hello Cam and Michelle –

    I have enjoyed reading your blog over the last few months and have borrowed your most recent book from a friend and itw as great information as my family and I work on our self-sufficient adventure. I agree with much of what you’ve written in this post and people’s lack of concern over global warming.

    However, I disagree with your comment about the alloment gardener who probably only gardens a 20×30 plot. Any little bit that people do can be helpful, whether growing a few vegetables in pots on the patio, to a small plot, to a large CSA. And, certainly, in a well planned space, you can grow much of your food for 1 – 2 individuals in a 20×30 foot space. Big isn’t the only way to be! The last thing we need to do is pit the ‘big’ gardeners against the ‘small’ gardeners.

    Thanks for your interesting posts.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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