After a summer that saw widespread drought across the province, water conservation is a bigger issue than ever for Ontario farmers. This week, the Ontario and federal governments introduced a $1.5-million initiative to promote water conservation, but some local farmers are already looking for ways to prepare for those hot summer days.
Dale Stevanus, a Bloomingdale farmer, is one producer who has taken steps to ensure that his crops don’t go thirsty. On the Stevanus Family Farm, he spent years irrigating his annual crops of pumpkin, radishes, carrots and other vegetables with regular impact sprinklers, which shoot out water and blanket the surrounding area. Ten years, he bought lines of drip tape, which are laid out amidst the crops, releasing water through holes. Then, Stevanus began to crunch the numbers.
Over a six-hour period, his impact sprinklers used 5,760 gallons of water on a 25-foot by 100-foot plot of crops. After switching to drip irrigation he found that he used only 1,032 gallons over the same space and time.
“These figures point to the fact that, not only do you get the water to go into the areas you want, but you can conserve a great amount of water,” said Stevanus. “With the old system, we ran the pond dry a couple of times a year, just because it was consuming so much water. Now we get more life out of our pond.”Still, even Stevanus’ business suffered at times from the summer’s hot temperatures. “This year, we ran out of water in our pond, and we had to run some water down from the house to supplement it. But the pond ran out for us in mid-August; if we were still going on with the sprinkling system, it would have run out in early July.”
Not all Ontario farms were so lucky, and in response to a bad year, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Ontario Minister of Agriculture Ted McMeekin announced from Guelph on Monday a new initiative to promote water conservation for Ontario farmers.
The Water Resource Adaptation and Management Initiative is a joint partnership of the federal and Ontario governments, part of the Economic Action Plan’s Agriculture Flexibility Fund. The government will invest up to $1.5 million towards water efficiency projects. The proposal calls for research studies on new technologies, equipment and practices, along with workshops, education materials and other outreach programs to spread information on water conservation.
“Managing water more effectively is an important part of mitigating and adapting to climate change and the extreme weather it brings,” said Ted McMeekin in a release. “Working together to bring innovative practices and technologies to farmers is one of the best paths to a more productive, competitive and sustainable future for the entire industry.”
“The growing seasons of 2011 and 2012 have been pretty dry, and there are parts of the province where there are a lot of permitted water users, and they literally use all the water that is in the creek,” said Bruce Kelly, environmental program coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Guelph office. “This is a short-term project, because there are a lot of folks looking at irrigation, especially with the year we just had. This is an attempt to help get out some good demonstration projects related to pond design, and getting irrigation tight and controlled.”
Kelly said that these new technologies will likely come from other territories. “There are lots of areas of the world that are used to farming with less water than we do – California and Israel and Nebraska,” said Kelly. “We’re not likely to invent the new widgets here, but someone from Ontario might turn to California or Israel to bring in some equipment that has been used elsewhere in the world to control water, and be the first ones here in Ontario, kind of the guinea pigs.”
Of course, much of water conservation comes from common sense, and Stevanus said a key to conservation is a simple understanding of nature.
“During the night, the water will stay where it’s supposed to for longer than during the day, when the heat from the sun will suck the moisture from the ground faster. We get the best result from irrigating at night, and getting as close as we can to what the plants need so we don’t prematurely drain our resources.”
And if drought continues to be a problem in 2013, Stevanus emphasized that the farmers will need to think ahead.
“If you’re anticipating a dry spell you really have to watch how you use the water, because the irrigation really only keeps your plants alive. It helps them grow, but what really brings on the produce to maturity is a good soaking rain”