Ice houses & climate change

Some years ago I was visiting an Amish farmer who was making some furniture for me.

Photo by Alison Caldwell

As we were chatting he happened to make reference to his ice house. He could tell by my quizzical look that I didn’t know what he was talking about and he then proceeded to explain that in January and February of each year that they go out onto a pond with a team of horses and cut blocks of ice. These blocks are then loaded onto a wagon or sleigh and brought up to the farm buildings and placed in a small shed (the ice house). The ice is then covered with straw or sawdust and, amazingly used as late as September or October of that same year as their main means of cooling food.

As I drove away from this man’s farm and his traditional farming methods I couldn’t help but wonder: what does climate change mean for this very traditional and religious society that rejects electricity and modern appliances?

What would it mean, for instance, if they are unable to harvest ice for purposes of cooling?

While it is easy to think about climate change in an abstract high-level way, at a basic level it is about community, livelihoods and day-to-day lifestyles.


Global climate change is a reality, and at the same time energy prices continue to rise.

In Canada, climate change is expected to play havoc with our weather, with corresponding impacts on the environment, the economy, and society. Although there is debate over the timing and impacts from peak oil (made all the more difficult because of the resurgence of production based on fracking), there will be a time when the availability and pricing of conventional oil will significantly impact life in rural communities.

As these trends will fundamentally change our communities, the question is: how can municipalities work to increase resilience – to ensure that communities can withstand potential shocks and changes? What types of responses address both climate change and rising energy prices?

Planning for Rural Resilience reflects three guiding beliefs regarding community resilience in the face of climate change and increasing energy prices associated with peak oil:

1. The future is unknown: exact impacts of climate change and peak oil are unpredictable, yet there remains a need to develop a realistic response.

2. Municipalities can create a foundation for community action by balancing concerns for the future with a positive vision.

3. Communities and municipalities have options and opportunities to make informed and constructive decisions in the face of uncertainty; many of these decisions are “win-win” in the sense that they benefit the community in the short term, while also building resilience for the future.

In essence, “win-win” actions are low risk with great potential for positive outcomes. Examples of this include planting a tree or creating community gardens and public parks.


The Township of Mapleton is located within Wellington County, a prime agricultural growing area of south-central Ontario.

Photo by Alison Caldwell

The majority of the landscape comprises fields for agricultural production. To assist in improving crop production returns, reducing rising energy costs, and improving local biodiversity, a concerted tree-planting effort has been under way for the past decade.

The tree plantings are adding to an interconnected tree network across the township. Since 2006, 400,000 trees have been planted, and over 300 kilometres of windbreaks have been provided.

To undertake work, farmers prepare environmental farm plans to document the priorities for on-farm tree-planting initiatives. In many instances, economic benefits are illustrated by the strategic planting of trees to serve as windbreaks for fields, shelterbelts to protect farm buildings, and living snow fences along roadways.

The windbreaks have multifunctional benefits to humans and nature, including improving soil conditions (moisture, organic materials, topsoil, nutrients); providing ecosystem variety to monoculture crops by bringing in natural insect pest predators (birds) to the area; increasing economic returns by increasing crop yields in areas adjacent to the windbreaks (because of earlier germination of seeds and protection from weather during
the crop-growing season); and serving as natural snow fences that reduce snow management costs on municipal roadways.

The planting of trees also provides benefits to nature and humans. It increases the connectivity of natural systems, thereby promoting biodiversity transference between areas. It increases soil health and reduces soil erosion, thereby reducing the need for fuel-based fertilizer supplements for crop production.

This case comprises a grassroots stewardship council working with local governments and non-profit agencies to participate in treeplanting activities in the Township of Mapleton.


Municipalities have intimate knowledge of their communities, as well as responsibility at the local level of government.

This combination positions municipalities to inspire and inform community action.

By creating collaborative vision and facilitating planning processes, municipalities can increase community resilience and preparation for difficult times.

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