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How Sunshine Coast farms are weathering a drought… again

Two of the area’s organic farms talk water supply and potential solutions as their crops continue to grow

Just one week after the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s (SCRD) two-week Stage 4 water restriction exemption for farmers dried up, water began to flow from the newly-installed well at the Henry Reed Organic Produce farm in Elphinstone.  

“It was right in the nick of time,” farmer Martin Kiewitz told Coast Reporter. “I told the well driller, ‘You couldn’t have waited an extra week, because then we would have been starting to get in trouble.’” 

Planning for the well began two years ago, and work started on-site in May because demand was so high. Kiewitz says he first got a quote two years before that, after Stage 4 became a more regular occurrence, but when a good rain season followed, he put it off. Now, after more than 25 years of farming at Henry Reed, the Kiewitzs have their own water source. 

“I want to keep this farm going as a farm, as a food producer for the Coast. And, hopefully, our kids will be able to carry on the tradition,” Kiewitz said. “And with that intent, we need a well because we have to make sure that we’ve got water, we can't be cut off.”

Turning on an independent water source, “It was a really good feeling to know that we're not going to have to use band-aid [solutions] and try to get by like that.” He said not having to use treated water on their two acres is another benefit, and won’t affect other people’s water consumption. "I'd rather be part of the solution than the problem."

But not all farmers can afford a well. Although Kiewitz declined to share how much his well cost, he said it cut into their retirement a little bit, and it would have been an issue if they had not paid off the land before they began farming. For farmers operating on leased land, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a well. 

What about a well?

And with low proceeds, affording a well is a gargantuan task, if not impossible. 

When Grounded Acres Organic Farm was established two years ago, the land’s previous owners had already tried to drill for a well. They were unsuccessful. While the farm’s above-ground water tanks cost about $10,000 to run, including the pump, farmer Mel Sylvestre said it would cost the same amount just to scope for a well, with no promise of finding water. They had to choose one. The cost of a well is around 80 per cent of their annual net income in a year, Sylvestre said, and they can’t afford it.

Sylvestre says she and her partner did their research before moving to the Coast, and were aware of the water shortage. They installed their water tanks right away to hold about 9,000 gallons. The tanks are not a long-term solution, but an emergency solution.

She said the agricultural sector needs subsidies, which could include an agricultural rate on metered water. 

“We're doing work that never pays a lot. We're doing it because we love it. And I don’t see myself doing anything else. I'm not complaining, I don't want a higher wage, I just want to have the basic elements that I need to do my job.” 

While Grounded Acres does not worry about selling product, because of the high community demand, Sylvestre says the water situation on the Coast is likely scaring off more farmers from coming and staying here, especially young and landless farmers. 

More than a drought

When asked how the season has been so far for Henry Reed, Kiewitz says, “It’s not without challenges, for a number of reasons…It’s a typical year where you don't really know what's going to be happening, because the climate is changing.” 

2022 came on the heels of a year full of extreme weather events: multiple record-breaking hot days, an extended drought followed by atmospheric rivers that caused flooding and landslides, then a cold winter with a lot of snow. When the cold and wet weather extended into the spring of 2022, crops fell behind but the snowpack looked good. 

“And then, because of the cold wet spring, we went through the summer thinking, ‘Oh, at least you're not gonna run out of water this year,’” Sylvestre said on Oct. 11. But the SCRD’s main water source, the Chapman water system, has now been on Stage 4 restrictions since Aug. 31 — with no rain in sight. 

Farmers ask for permanent exemption

In June, the Sunshine Coast Farmers’ Institute (SCFI) sent a letter to the SCRD board asking for a permanent exemption from Stage 4 water restrictions for commercial food farmers and a 50 per cent reduction on commercial water rates. The letter states food is “an essential human need and as such local food production needs to be protected” especially in light of supply chain issues and food scarcity. It also points to farms’ ability to recharge the aquifer and their impact on the ecosystem and climate change. The disparity between commercial farmers and indoor commercial water use is also raised by the SCFI. 

“Simply by enacting stage 2 and stage 3 water restrictions earlier, and, in particular, by banning water use on lawns, enough water could be saved to compensate for the 1-3% used by farmers in stage 4,” the letter stated.

While water supply projects are in the works, the completion of the Church Road well project has been delayed due to global supply chain issues. It was anticipated to supply water to the community by late August or early September, and prevent the SCRD from implementing conservation regulations beyond Stage 2 in the future. In the meantime, the water level at Chapman Lake has reached new lows and siphons have been installed at Edwards Lake.

The SCRD granted a two-week Stage 4 exemption for farmers in 2021 after community water initiatives and a push from local farmers. Then in February 2022, the SCRD made the two-week window automatic for eligible farms going forward. A water supply update and 2022 drought response update are expected to be presented at the Oct. 13 meeting of the SCRD board (after Coast Reporter’s print deadline). 

Remko Rosenboom, the SCRD’s general manager of infrastructure, told Coast Reporter that the SCFI’s request was discussed by the board several weeks ago, but a permanent exemption for farmers would require a bylaw update. An update could be considered by the new board, when staff bring forward bylaw amendment recommendations next year (2023).

Sylvestre said the two-week exemption significantly helped this year. Usually, rain will follow the two weeks provided, but she says they may never see a normal year again. “Obviously, two weeks — we'll take it, but if you get me to save my crop for two weeks but then you pull the plug after, I still lose my crop so you may as well keep your two weeks,” she said. “You need to see the big picture here.” 

And after the two-week exemption period, the rain still did not fall. Instead, a company in the forestry section stepped up to fill that need for Grounded Acres, bringing over creek water — donating the use of their truck and their time — to refill the farm’s large above-ground tanks. As the water began flowing, Sylvestre immediately started watering. If they’re diligent with using the water on a reduced irrigation schedule, it could last from 10 days to two weeks. 

Even though Kiewitz now has a well, and is no longer beholden to the water restrictions of the day (aside from domestic purposes), he hopes other farms will be granted a permanent exemption from Stage 4. He said it won’t be a total solution as the demand for local food grows, but at the time there is little farming being done here. He hopes to see more farms, and more young farmers come to the Coast. 

“It just seems to me, why would you step on the toes of people that are trying to produce food locally?” he said. 

Kiewitz said he’s not pointing the finger at other businesses, but asks why farms aren’t on par with indoor businesses. 

For 10 years, the Henry Reed farm has been metered, but Kiewitz said the SCRD gave them a “sweet deal” by charging them the domestic rate. Reports he’s done over the years have shown how much water Henry Reed uses and exactly what for. 

Standing next to his well, Kiewitz acknowledges it’s not much to look at. “But it’s a thing of beauty to me.”

Growing season continues

There’s a misconception that the growing season is over once September hits — but that’s not the case for growers on the Sunshine Coast.  

As of Oct. 11, the workers at Henry Reed were still planting crops. Although some are what Kiewitz calls “gamble crops,” he says if the weather is good they can have consistent production through November. In the unheated greenhouses where the new mustard is growing, it’s important to keep a continuous supply of water. Uncovered in another field are picture-perfect eggplants and peppers. (Until a few years ago, Kiewitz only grew a few eggplants for his family, but the climate has changed enough that he can plant a 200-foot bed of them for sale.) Local labour costs have already been paid for, and produce needs to be sold. If the farm’s well had not begun operating when it did, the salad crops would have died within seven to 10 days. Where a young, green mustard crop now grows, it would have been a flat, dead field. 

“And that, to me, is the worst part about the whole thing — is that it's food that's wasted,” he said. Then residents have to rely on imported food. While Kiewitz doesn’t think a great percentage of the Coast’s food will be grown locally, “every little bit helps.”

The root vegetables can usually stay in the ground through January and February, and be harvested along the way. When growing picks up in March, Sylvestre says they can sometimes earn thousands of dollars off their overwintering crops, but for now they’re scrambling to keep them healthy ahead of the winter. The heat has triggered the growth of some of the plants too soon. 

In her 20 years of farming, Sylvestre says she’s never irrigated a field in October until now. 

At Grounded Acres, where the family farm is in its second year of production, the concern is for their top soil. A brief rain in mid-September “literally washed off the surface of the soil — it didn't even penetrate the soil. So it didn't even help at all,” Sylvestre said. It wasn’t the kind of rain the farmers needed at that time of year. In a Oct. 12 press release, the SCRD said the Chapman water system needs more than 150 millimetres of rain to recharge the watershed.

They want to have a cover crop for their topsoil, helping hold it in place for when the rain returns, but there’s no cover crop in the Grounded Acres field now — the field is tilled, the seed is ready, but there’s no rain to germinate it. Sylvestre wants to use the little water she has for the crops already in the ground. “We’re triaging,” she says. Before the next full moon, she expects frost.

Protecting the top soil is crucial for building soil fertility. Vegetables usually grow in the top 15 to 30 centimetres of the soil. "For us going through a season and losing a few centimetres sets us back years and years of effort of building up our soil,” Sylvestre said. “And I can not just bring a truck and fill it in. The soil we're building up, it's alive.”

The impact of a lack of water is beyond one crop cycle. It could have years of ramifications on a plot of land. Sylvestre points to the forest nearby, wondering what else will be lost. “I’m not someone that gets climate change anxiety and then suddenly I'm getting climate change anxiety.”

With files from Connie Jordison

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