Some crops — most often fruits and vegetables — need more water to grow properly than just what they get from rain. The process of supplementing with more water is called irrigation, and there are a variety of technologies which farmers use to make sure that their crops have enough water, and that they don’t use more than they need. In greenhouses, water used for irrigation is collected and reused, ensuring sustainable use of this important resource. Irrigation supports 40 per cent of our global food supply; in Canada, it’s only used by about 8.5 per cent of all farms.
Medicinal crops and growing for sacred ceremonies
Some farmers grow crops for medicine rather than food. Ginseng is one such example. The root was traditionally used in Chinese and Indigenous medicine, but is now used to treat a range of ailments. Canada is a global leader in the production of North American ginseng, with more than two-thirds of the entire crop grown in a small area of Southwestern Ontario. Most is exported to markets in Asia. Ginseng beds are easily recognizable, as they’re covered by shade cloth structures — that’s because the plants must be grown in 70 to 80 per cent shade.
Cannabis is another crop that is increasingly being grown in Canada, both for medicinal and recreational uses. Licensed growers grow the crop primarily in greenhouses, under very strict rules and regulations. In 2018, Canada became the
second country in the world to legalize use of recreational cannabis, although health-related uses had been allowed for longer.
Growing for sacred ceremonies
Tobacco, cedar, sweet grass, and sage are the four sacred plants of Canada’s First Nations. Tobacco plays a major role in every stage of life for some Indigenous cultures — the smoke is believed to be a pathway to the spirit world, carrying all thoughts, feelings, and prayers to the Creator. The University of Saskatchewan has been conducting trials growing traditional Nicotiana rustica or ceremonial tobacco, harvesting its first crop in 2019, and sharing plants and seeds with local Indigenous populations.
Ginseng grown in Canada for 300 years
Ginseng has been part of traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years, and is sought after for its medicinal properties. The First Nations and Chinese cultures have long revered ginseng as the miracle “man-root” — known as such because the root shape resembles a human, and is believed to be beneficial for every part of one’s being. Panax quinquefolious ginseng (a.k.a. North American ginseng, or NAG) is native to Canada, and cultivating it is one of the country’s oldest trades. Ginseng was found growing in the early 1700s near Montréal by a Jesuit Priest, and has been used as a valued crop for 300 years. The majority of Canadian product goes to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and increasingly, to Vietnam.
Ginseng is a high-risk crop to grow for a number of reasons. Firstly, farmers do not have access to insurance programs on which to rely in case of a catastrophic weather event or crop failure. It’s also a very labour intensive crop because it grows under thick black netted shades that mimic a forest’s canopy. These structures are both expensive to erect and to maintain. Finally, it is generally a four to five-year process from the time a field is prepared and the crop is planted, to when it’s harvested. Today, most of Canada’s ginseng is grown in Ontario by about 160 farmers. The sandy soils and climate of southwestern Ontario are ideal for ginseng growth because they most closely mimic conditions where wild ginseng thrives.
Canadian crops for the Canadian climate
The climate varies across the country, but winters pretty much anywhere in Canada are cold and snowy, and there are only a few warm summer months. Crops have to be strong enough to survive those extremes. Plants that grow well in warmer climates don’t always produce well in Canada. That’s why Canadian plant breeders work hard to develop new varieties suited for Canadian climates. New corn and soybean varieties, for example, can now be grown in cooler regions of the country. New asparagus varieties, which are both cold-hardy and resistant to specific crop diseases, have been developed. The same goes for new varieties of pears, sweet potatoes, and even roses.