By Magpie Group
What if your livelihood depended on the weather? Too little rain or too much resulted in you having to take a major pay cut – or worse, left you without a paycheque at all?
It’s a worry farmers have every season. If they don’t get enough precipitation (rain or snow), crops won’t grow. No crops to sell = no income. Too much rain can be just as devastating, leaving soil too saturated for plant growth.
Not only does this impact the farmer, it affects you too. If farmers can’t produce enough wheat, apples, or carrots because of too little (or too much) moisture, you’ll see significantly higher food costs or food shortages at the grocery store.
The bottom line is that without water, farmers can’t produce food.
Managing and protecting on-farm water
Although farmers have no control over how much rain or snow they get, they do have ways to manage water to make the most of precipitation. In fact, managing on-farm water resources is critical to their ability to continue to farm during droughts or floods.
First, it’s important to know that water on the farm is never used up. It is constantly – and naturally – recycled. Here’s how:
Water is continuously in motion. The atmosphere acts as a superhighway to move water around the globe. The same water molecules are transferred over and over from the oceans and the land surface into the atmosphere by evaporation, dropped on the land as precipitation, and transferred back to the ocean by rivers and groundwater. This endless circulation is known as the water cycle.
A question of quality
Not all water is the same. The quality of the water depends on many factors, including mineral content, how much salt it contains, hardness or softness, bacteria levels – and so much more.
Farmers need an adequate supply of safe, good-quality water to grow plants and raise animals. Poor water quality will be harmful to the soil, crop productivity, livestock health and food safety.
Agriculture works with all parts of the water cycle.
- Farmers rely on precipitation to grow their crops.
- They use groundwater (water drawn from underground sources like wells and aquifers) and surface water that runs off the land from snowmelt and rainfall for watering livestock, drinking water and other purposes.
- Many farmers dig large dugouts (man-made ponds) to catch precipitation and store surface water. Water from dugouts can be used for crop watering as well as watering livestock.
- Farmers also move around surface water by digging drainage ditches and irrigating.
- Farmers can also use water conservation practices such as zero-till which minimally disturbs the soil during seeding to retain soil moisture.
Many farmers have water management plans as part of their Environmental Farm Plans to protect water quality and water resource on their farms. This helps make the best use of available water, which means managing water through conserving it, as well as recycling it. Examples include:
- Growing varieties of crops that require less water and are resistant to drought
- Using conservation tillage where fields are minimally tilled or not tilled at all – stubble left on fields helps soil retain moisture for crops to use
- Planting trees around dugouts to help capture snow
- Ensuring natural water sources and the areas around them are left undisturbed to prevent damage to aquatic ecosystems
Bringing water to the farm
So what are the options when there’s not enough surface or groundwater to meet farmers’ needs? Many rely on irrigation. The rest rely solely on precipitation for crop watering.
Irrigation involves using specialized equipment to channel available water in nearby lakes or rivers or underground into canals or pipelines, then spray it onto fields.
DYK? Irrigation is practiced on farms from coast to coast but the total number of farms that irrigate is actually quite low. Of the nearly 190,000 farms1 in Canada, just over 6,100 use irrigation on their farms.2 This number will vary depending on how much precipitation a farm receives each season.
The specific reasons why farmers irrigate will depend on many factors. Here are a few:
- Irrigation is a tool to support crops affected by drought conditions. For example, in 2020, because there was more rainfall, Canadian farmers used 40% less water to irrigate their crops compared with two years earlier.3
- Well-watered plants grow more food and farmers can grow a bigger variety of crops.
- Accessing more water lets farmers grow higher value crops, such as fruits and vegetables. This also diversifies our diets by providing access to a wider range of fresh local produce.
DYK? Irrigation is critical to global food security. World-wide, 40% of global food supplies are produced on irrigated land.4
Efficient irrigation involves applying the right amount of water and crop inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) only when plants need them to conserve water, protect wildlife habitats and reduce energy costs.
Just as you carefully plan your lawn watering schedule, farmers must also manage and conserve irrigation water. This is accomplished by:
- Irrigating on calm cool, or cloudy days or at night when less moisture is lost through evaporation.
- Checking systems regularly for leaks and repairing them immediately.
- Using water or energy saving nozzles on irrigation equipment.
- Keeping soil healthy so it retains moisture.
Irrigation contributes to sustainable agriculture.
In farming, managing and protecting natural resources is a tricky, but essential business. In fact, the livelihoods of farm families depend on water like no other resource.
Farmers know that water is essential for them to be able to produce safe, healthy food now and in the future – what we often refer to as sustainable agriculture. Their actions act as a kind of insurance policy to make sure we can meet the growing demands for food production without endangering the natural resources on which the world depends.
And although the weather can be unpredictable, favourable or not, it’s the good years with sufficient moisture that help make farming a rewarding career and lifestyle. It’s the years when nature cooperates that farmers – and consumers – reap the benefits.
Canadian agriculture has created several farm stewardship initiatives to guide production and management practices in almost every sector. Learn more about these programs here:
- Healthy Soil For Today And The Future: 4R Nutrient Stewardship
- Encouraging Responsible Use Of Pesticides: Pesticide Applicator Licence
- Recycling on the farm: Cleanfarms
- Protecting Biodiversity: Environmental Farm Plans
- https://www.statcan.gc.ca/en/census-agriculture ↩︎
- https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3810024401 ↩︎
- https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/211213/dq211213d-eng.htm ↩︎
- https://www.fao.org/water/en/#:~:text=Globally%2C%20groundwater%20provides%20around%2050,the%20total%20food%20produced%20worldwide ↩︎