'Wheat Pete's' guilty pleasure

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Maple syrup may just be Peter Johnson’s guilty pleasure.

The Provincial Cereal Speciallist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) has a sweet tooth and enjoys the bounty of Ontario’s maple trees with both waffles and pancakes.

“On ice cream too,” he clarified last week.

The ‘guilty’ part comes from the fact the man known as ‘Wheat Pete’ for his affinity for that particular cereal crop knows full well that an extended and repetitive freeze/thaw cycle which makes for a bumper syrup crop, can be tough on both winter wheat and stands of alfalfa.

“I absolutely love maple syrup, absolutely love it. If we could only figure out how to have really, really great wheat and lots of maple syrup, I’d love it.”

The freeze/thaw cycle is natural in northern climes, and beneficial to soil structure in the sense it counteracts soil compaction caused by agricultural machinery, compared to say, Georgia, where the latter is more of an issue.

“The winter can help fix it for us,” said Johnson. Johnson compares the freeze/thaw cycle to the up-and-down action of a vehicle jack. Some is beneficial, too much can actually ‘jack’ wheat or alfalfa plants right out of the soil.

“Some is good, but too much is bad.”

The effect is less pronounced on sandier ground, says Johnson, moreso on heavier, clay soils.

“Right now, I think we’re fine,” he said. “But that’s no guarantee it will be fine three weeks from now.”

Corn and soy beans are affected more by spring, summer and fall moisture conditions, but winter wheat and alfalfa prefer snow cover, Johnson continued. It has ‘come and gone’ a few times through the winter of 2012/2013 and there has been some water on the ground, but not excessively so.

“As it now stands, I think the wheat crop (and alfalfa) is in excellent shape.”

Another positive development would suggest that subsoil moisture levels, dangerously depleted at times during drought-like conditions in 2012, have been ‘recharged.’

“Our subsoil moisture, our moisture reserves to get us through a dry summer, are basically at 100%,” said Johnson.

Admittedly, one does not have to be a cereal speciallist with OMAF or a meteorologist to note a difference between this year’s sub-freezing first day of spring, and last year’s record-breaking 26-degree burst of heat.

“This is more normal than last winter for sure, if a little later than what we have become accustomed to,” said Johnson.

‘Die-hard corn guys,’ preferred last year, he admitted, because they prefer to plant ‘early, early, early.’

It does not appear as though that will be the case in 2013, although a mid-April planting date is still quite possible, in Johnson’s estimation.

“The data would suggest if we can plant corn by the 20th of April, life is good.”

Given the fact Ontario’s farmers have experienced a roller-coaster of weather conditions over the past couple of years, definitely ‘business as unusual’, anything remains possible through the summer of 2013. But looking forward from the first day of spring, Johnson – like the majority of those in any form of agriculture – could see reason for optimism.

“Right now, life is good across the board.”




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