Growers get a jump on planting

A mild winter has spared Quebec apple, small fruit and vegetable growers, as well as honey producers, from significant damage to their plants, fields and insects, figures from the Financière agricole du Québec suggest.

And the warm spring weather has also let many commercial crop producers get a jump on the growing season.

According to a crop report issued last week by the FAQ, the monthly temperatures in January and February were three to four degrees above average during the winter months. At the same time, the average rate of snowfall was below average.

As a result, all major growing areas of the province and the types of production most vulnerable to the weather -- everything from apples and blueberries to vegetables and strawberries -- were spared from the sometimes devastating effects that extreme temperature, flooding and the rapid accumulation and melting of ice and snow can have on their crops.

Similarly, March and April were as much as six degrees warmer than average. While that shortened the maple syrup season, the quality was high. The condensed maple syrup season resulted in a jump in insurance claims by producers to the FAQ -- from 329 last year to 742 in 2010.

The continued warm weather in May has also been favourable for most production. According to the FAQ, more than a third of cereal crops (36 per cent) have already been planted, as have 27 per cent of corn crops, 21 per cent of potatoes and five per cent of canola.

The FAQ also judges that "the vegetation season is ahead of schedule (and) hay is developing well."

Strawberry producers across the province, however, were hit hard last week when a night-long killer frost destroyed a large portion of their flowering crops.

"It has reduced the yield by as much as 40 per cent in some areas," says Yves Desjardins, a professor of plant science at Laval University in Quebec City and a specialist in horticulture and small fruit production.

That loss, he adds, was mirrored in the onion sector, which had its earliest-ever planting this year during a warm spell in mid-March.

"They gambled and lost," Desjardins says. "It's always like that in agriculture: you take your chances and hope for the best."

He adds that other fruit and flower crops haven't been hit by frost or other weather-related damage because they have not yet flowered or emerged.