Canada is a world leader in the production of pulses and PEI could be on track for even greater production, thanks to an unlikely ally—climate change.

Rising sea levels, more extreme hot days, changing precipitation patterns—Prince Edward Island can expect to experience a number of negative impacts from climate change. But, the prospects aren’t all negative.

“In the last 15, 20 years or so, we’ve been seeing a huge shift in the global climate and that’s been having an influence on our regional climate,” Adam Fenech, director of the University of Prince Edward Island Climate Lab, said, speaking at the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) Conference in Charlottetown this past November. He said that “over the last two years, we’ve had some droughts that have really influenced agriculture in a negative sense.”

“It’s not going to be like it was in the past. It’s going to continue to change,” Fenech said, but he noted that some good may come with the bad.

“In terms of agriculture, we’re getting a longer growing season. We’re getting increased heat units. You’ve probably seen, and I’ve seen, the introduction of crop varieties that require more heat units to be successful,” Fenech said. “We’re getting incredibly sweet corn here on Prince Edward Island. We just didn’t have the heat units to grow it before. And farmers are really pushing the pulse industry. It’s probably going to really emerge on Prince Edward Island.”

Pulse Canada defines pulses as “the dried edible seeds of certain plants in the legume family”, and identifies four main types of pulses grown in Canada: dry peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas. Chris and Tracey Chivilo saw the potential for PEI pulses a few years ago. In the winter of 2017, their company W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions started building a pulse processing plant in Slemon Park, PEI, after contracting 6,000 acres of pulses from Island farmers. The processing plant, which is one of seven owned by the company across Canada, currently employs 10 people and processes green and yellow peas, fava beans, and black beans. They are also experimenting with different types of coloured beans, along with lentils and chickpeas.

Chris Chivilo examines peas ready for shipping //photo credit: Stephen Young

Chris Chivilo, president and CEO of the company, said that pulses are generally considered part of a good healthy rotation with many other crops. “On the Island, they fit very well with the potato rotation because they fix nitrogen to be used by the potatoes and because they provide more organic matter than a lot of other crops do.”

He said that the normal rainfall and heat on the Island is perfect for peas, while warming weather may open up other possibilities. “As the weather warms up over time, and who knows how long it will take, we expect that other pulse crops like lentils and chickpeas, which require higher temperatures, will be more lucrative,” Chivilo said. “We had a few acres of lentils and chickpeas last year. The temperature was quite hot, so it was beneficial for the lentils and chickpeas. We’re hoping to do probably 50 acres of each next year to expand it and get a better look at how they do.”

While the changing climate may bring expanded potential for agriculture on the Island, there are caveats as well. Stephanie Arnold, a senior research assistant with the UPEI Climate Lab and lead author of the 2017 Prince Edward Island Climate Change Adaptation Recommendations Report, also spoke at the ACORN Conference. “Generally, agriculture is one of the very few areas where it could benefit from climate change, at least in the short term,” Arnold said. “But, of course, climate change is dangerous and the same warm temperature that gives some benefits will also cause a lot of issues.”

Researcher Adam Fenech speaks to ACORN conference attendee David Murphy //photo credit:Cheryl Young/Salty

On the positive side, Fenech and Arnold noted a number of potential impacts including a longer growing season, an increase in the number of growing degree days, and shorter winters. They said that this could result in higher winter survival rates for pollinators, more time outdoors for livestock, along with accordingly lower feed requirements and higher survival rates of their young, and potential new crops.

But, Arnold said, the potential negative impacts are invasive species, new pathogens and diseases, changes in precipitation, and a greater risk of frost, among others. “We don’t know whether, overall, the benefits will outweigh the costs of some of the challenges. It’s an unknown,” Arnold said. “There are so many factors that go into it, but not everything is rosy with warmer temperatures, and whether it’s new pests and pathogens or existing ones, they’re going to be more productive in the warmer temperature.”

According to the adaptation recommendations report, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases emissions are necessary to combating climate change, but they are unlikely to be sufficient. It says that a strategy to “to adapt to climate change and negate many of the expected adverse impacts is equally, if not more, urgent.”

When it comes to agriculture and farmers, Arnold appears to maintain some optimism. “Farmers have adapted, probably more than any other sector that we’ve spoken to,” Arnold said.

For Kevin Petrie, the head farmer at The Inn at Bay Fortune, adaptation plays a key role in their planning and testing. “In terms of climate change going forward, we’re always looking at how can I adapt our farm and the different crops I’m growing to withstand the pressures of that,” Petrie said. This past summer “we grew peas and beans on a smaller scale. I probably grew about 200 feet of them,” he said. “This coming season we’ll definitely get into more pulse growing, more lentils and things like that. That will allow me to determine how it grows in our soil and on our farm, and any pests or issues water-wise. I’ll learn from that and upgrade to another level for next time.”

In addition to localized testing, Arnold pointed out that there is likely knowledge to be gained from others. “We don’t have to start from scratch. There are probably places in the South— Idaho, as an example. Maybe they have already gone through what we’re going through now, this transition phase. What has worked for them? What hasn’t worked with them? It’s important to know where they failed so we don’t have to practice those same mistakes. Let’s build upon their knowledge.”

A farmer checks on a crop of peas. Dried peas are considered pulses.

She said that it is important to take adaptations a step at a time. “That will help us be more flexible and deal with uncertainty. That way we’re not committing ourselves to spending a lot of money and risking over-adapting, under-adapting, or just completely mal-adapting.”

Climate isn’t the only factor to consider of course. Economically, lentils and chickpeas are considered high value crops but, as Chivilo pointed out, there are cycles. Lentils and chickpeas had seen very high prices over the last three years, he said, but “the cure for high prices is high prices. So when prices go up too high, naturally people start using less or finding alternative crops and that brings the price back down. We’re at that phase right now with chickpeas and lentils.”

For the pulses they currently process, the future looks positive. W.A. Grain and Pulse Solutions increased their initial contracting of 6,000 acres to 8,000 acres last year and Chivilo said they’re hoping to further increase it to between 12,000 and 15,000 acres next year.