Alberta's smoky skies may delay crops, honey harvest

·3 min read
A canola field under an eerie orange sky in 2018 near Lloydminster from forest fires.  (Suppled by James Oberhofer  - image credit)
A canola field under an eerie orange sky in 2018 near Lloydminster from forest fires. (Suppled by James Oberhofer - image credit)

The haze this summer may not only be a detriment to human health — it could also have a negative impact on food production.

While studies indicate smoke helps seed germination and can even ripen fruit, such as bananas, it may also delay plant maturity by prohibiting photosynthesis.

"The crop can basically shut down and go into stasis for quite some time," said James Oberhofer, who works as an agronomist.

In 2018, Oberhofer remembers checking a canola field for disease and insects during a mid-August two-week stretch of eerie orange skies from B.C. wildfires. Although it was only noon, Oberhofer had to use his truck lights to navigate.

Canola crop growth that year was delayed by weeks across the province.

Dan Doll, a farmer in Fairview, Alta. said the value of his crop plummeted by 25 per cent as the seeds remained green, which resulted in a lower quality of oil.

"If farming was easy, there would be a lot more farmers in Canada," he said.

Smoke stops photosynthesis by triggering the plant to close their stomata, which are leaf pores that control the exchange of carbon dioxide, water and oxygen.

The danger with delaying canola growth is it can make the crop more susceptible to fall frosts, said Doll.

This summer has been particularly challenging for farmers, not only because of the wildfire smoke but also the extreme heat and drought conditions. Doll said he probably will only get 40 per cent of his normal crop as the near-40 degree heat sterilized canola flowers.

Researcher Raju Soolanayakanahally from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said the smoke this summer may have actually helped crops as it lowered temperatures by roughly 10 degrees, acting similarly to a cloudy day.

"And that helped some of the canola crops recover," he said in an interview with Radio Active on Thursday.

Smoke grounds bees

Wildfire smoke also impacts the production of honey.

Greg Greenleese of Meadow-Sweet Apiaries said the smoke made it difficult for his bees to navigate and collect nectar.

"They seem to just kind of float around near the hive," he said.

Greenleese said there is just a small time window to harvest honey, which makes the delay even more stressful. While he has yet to harvest, he expects to see a drop in production.

"But there's not much we can do but roll with the punches and just try to get whatever honey we can get."

Suppled by Meadow-Sweet Apiaries
Suppled by Meadow-Sweet Apiaries

As the smoke has lifted in the Edmonton area, he said the bees are back to pollinating.

However, as B.C. recently declared a provincial emergency due to hundreds of raging forest fires, Greenleese said it's likely the smoke could return and ground his insects. It could could also be a concern for other crops that depend on honey bee pollination, such as apples and blueberries.

Greenleese said the natural world is completely dependent on all the little things. Since scientists predict more extreme forest fire events due to climate change, he said it's probable smoke will continue to impact food production systems more and more each summer.

"If you scale it up, you're going to have a catastrophic calamity at some point."

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