Canadians love to complain about the weather, but for farmers like Morris Gervais, you just have to roll with it year to year.
“I know we’re a week or two behind last year,” Gervais said Wednesday afternoon at Barrie Hill Farms, located just outside the city in Springwater Township. “Every year is different, but I’ve become quite attuned to it.”
Being so reliant on the weather is just the way it is and there’s no real way around it.
“You have to work with Mother Nature, not against her,” said the 52-year-old father of four. “Sometimes, she can be a very fickle business partner.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that it can change in a hurry and I can catch up,” Gervais said during a tour around the farm in his pickup truck.
“It gets to the point, like right now, where I’m waiting,” he said. “Typically, I would have planted some peas already, I’d be getting ready to plant potatoes, but there’s still snow in the fields. The ground is still frozen at night.”
The farm includes a variety of crops on a few hundred acres in the Centre Vespra area, including 40 for blueberries, 30 for strawberries and 15 for raspberries with the ever-popular pick-your-own opportunities.
Late-season crops include beans, pickling cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes and pumpkins.
This year also marks the second season the farm will be harvesting pick-your-own apples.
But the first vegetable of the year is always asparagus, which is typically ready around May 8.
“This year, it might be later,” Gervais said. “We’ve had no warmth whatsoever. We’ve had years when we’ve harvested asparagus in late-April. Well, that’s not going to be this year.”
With some warmer weather, Gervais hopes the asparagus will be ready and the farm will be open by Mother’s Day weekend in May.
“Once I know when asparagus starts, then I get a better idea about strawberries,” he said. “Everybody is usually really excited about asparagus season, because it’s the first fresh local vegetable. You’ve been eating all this stuff that has been imported from all over the U.S. We haven’t had any fresh Ontario stuff now for quite some time.”
And while asparagus is the first sign of spring, it’s not too long before people are longing to pick some strawberries.
But again, it all comes down to weather, and what this farming season has in store has yet to be seen.
“Last year was a struggle, but we got through it,” Gervais said. “This year, we don’t know yet.”
Last year’s farming season was extremely wet.
“It was rain, rain, rain, all the time,” Gervais said. “That’s a big contrast to 2016, which was incredibly dry.”
If he had his druthers, though, he’ll take a dry growing season every time.
“Too dry is better than too wet, because I can’t turn off the clouds and make it stop raining,” Gervais said matter-of-factly. “Things tend to rot when they’re always wet. You deal with all kinds of leaf and fruit diseases.”
Year to year, wet or dry, hot or cold, Gervais would rather have it warm up gradually. “Absolutely, nice and steady, not these wild fluctuations,” he said.
And it’s not a matter of climate change, he said.
“It’s not changed, it’s not warming,” Gervais said. “It’s becoming more difficult to predict weather patterns.”
Gervais said weather events are “seared into his mind,” so much as that he can recall specific dates. For example, he pulls April 29, 2012 out of his hat when there was a massive frost.
“In 2012, and many farmers will remember this because it’s ingrained in their memory, there were no apples,” he said. “In March, it got really warm. Everyone was happy, kids were out riding their bikes, guys were out golfing, but the farmers were just miserable because we knew there was a frost coming, and it did.
“Then the crops froze.”
Gervais has motor-driven wind machines in some of his fields, including his apple orchard, that help bring warm air back down to ground level where cold air has settled.
“Anybody who didn’t have one of those wind machines in their apple orchard (in 2012) lost everything,” he said. “If they had one, they protected their crop and they paid for that machine in one year, because they had apples when no one else did.”
Adding a wind machine to his orchard seemed like a logical move.
“I’ve got a lot invested in these apple trees, the posts, the wires. It’s taken a lot of work to get it to this, and then one or two nights, you can lose a whole year’s crop; all the fruit buds freeze, because of one night, so you invest in a wind machine to try and fight back.”
This year marks the second season for pick-your-own apples at Barrie Hill Farms, which are usually ready to be plucked from the trees around Labour Day.
“Apples seemed like a good fit for the business and we can add that extra fall season,” he said.
The infrastructure for pick-your-own crops – such as the tractors, wagons and baskets – are all ready from earlier in the summer, so Gervais said there wasn’t much else needed to make it happen.
Barrie Hill Farms purchased nearby property in 2012 and apple trees were planted in 2015, featuring six varieties, and should be fully mature by 2020.
“As Barrie continues to grow and people know we have apples, we can sell them right here,” he said, adding most of their crops don’t even go to market. “We sell most of what we grow right here.”
It’s a crop Barrie Hill Farms had never really taken a bite out of before.
“We never had the land base to do it before,” Gervais said. “That enabled us to establish an apple orchard.”
The farm has been doing its pick-your-own strawberries since 1977.
“We’ve been into local food since before local food was even a thing,” Gervais said.
The strawberries, which are more capable of surviving a harsh winter because they’re under a blanket of insulating snow, are typically ready for picking around the last weekend of June and Canada Day.
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