As Fiona Hamersley Chambers of Metchosin Farm & Seeds wandered through her Wootton Road property last week, she observed a scene that’s typical of mid-March. Pak choi that was barely hanging on, kale plants just getting on track and strawberries that are months away.
That’s the 2017 reality for local and Island farmers, where unseasonably cold and rainy weather have wreaked havoc and caused the growing season to sit about four weeks behind a typical year.
Compared to last year, when everything was about six weeks ahead, Hamersley Chambers said, this year is about two months off from 2016.
Her farm doesn’t sell produce, instead focusing on seeds, with a product line centred around edible garden plants, native plants and rare or unusual varieties. That said, the weather has still been a factor.
“For us the climate shift is interesting because we’re working to adapt (seed) varieties for the local climate. You need minimum population numbers to maintain genetic health,” she said.
Hamersley Chambers uses pak choi, a Chinese cabbage plant, as an example, where a minimum of 80 plants are needed to maintain genetic health. “Because of the die-off this winter, there’s only six that survived. The good news is, the six that survived (have) the genetic heartiness, but what sucks is that we now have a genetic bottleneck.”
Down the road at Sea Bluff Farm, manager Robin Tunnicliffe witnesses a similar scene.
In fact, she and her crew had to wait until April 10 to till their fields, whereas in a typical year they’ll find a dry and mild window in February. As a result, the farm has lost a lot of revenue from its early season produce, which is normally ready by now.
“We do a lot of the winter and early spring cropping where we can really compete on the market, because there’s not a whole lot from B.C. and other markets … we normally capitalize on these seasons,” she said.
Sea Bluff’s key spring crops include salad and cooking greens, but the farm is dealing with over-wintered crops such as beets and cabbage.
“We’ve just kind of missed that planting because we couldn’t get into the field,” Tunnicliffe said, adding that some of her friends on the Saanich Peninsula still haven’t been able to till.
Having farmed in the region for more than 20 years, she said this year stands alone. “We’ve had late springs before and we’ve had very cold winters before, but I don’t remember this one-two punch.”
Winter farming will always be a gamble – Tunnicliffe joked that if she weren’t farming she’d spend her winters in the casino – but great conditions over the past few years had made her increasingly confident.
With local farmers’ markets due to open their season in a matter of weeks, Tunnicliffe isn’t sure if Sea Bluff will be able to attend.
“I don’t think we’ll be at the early markets because we don’t have enough. That’s kind of sad.”
If there’s a silver-lined seed in the farmers’ current plight, it’s that the unusually cold winter may help with pest control, which is a particular bonus for those growing organically, as is the case at both of these Metchosin farms.
“The pest load on our farm is huge,” Hamersley Chambers said. “We have way less slugs than we have had for the past five years.”