New ALR Tree Planting Rules Gets it Right

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New ALR Tree Planting Rules Gets it Right

I normally point a skeptical lens towards government policies and can be guilty of viewing most compromises as deals that are bad for all involved. But I am pleasantly surprised with the balance and good judgement that has been shown in the new regulations governing tree planting on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in British Columbia (BC).

Under the new regulations, property owners in the ALR will need to apply to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to plant trees on properties larger than 20 hectares, if those trees are not for an accepted ALC farm use such as food production or agroforestry.

These new regs essentialy allow business as usual for the appropriate use of trees on farms in BC for food production in either conventional (e.g. orchards) or agroforestry settings, while putting the brakes on the recent carbon-credits driven mania. In a recent land rush, primarily foreign multinationals have been seeking to offset their emissions in Europe and the United States by buying and afforesting farms and ranches in the interior of BC. In essence, they were were preserving their unsustainable manufacturing emissions profiles, by ripping land out of agricultural production into carbon-credit reserves, with serious implications for the long-term sustainability of BC agriculture.

BC’s agricultural land base is far too small to remove large blocks of land to devote solely for carbon sequestration. Especially given that we can achieve improved food security and conservation without removing this land from production. With expanded use of agroforestry we can proverbially have our cake and eat it too. These new regulations are win for an integrated approach to land use.

Canada’s Shelterbelt Shutdown

Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s (AAFC) decision last week to axe its long-running shelterbelt program, is not only a set-back for agroforestry in Canada, but could also have severe short and long-term implications for the sustainability of Prairie agriculture.

AAFC’s move to close the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, SK and terminate shelterbelt program by 2013 has obvious immediate implications for the program staff who were were handed pink slips. And after this year, the end of the shelterbelt seedling program means prairie agricultural producers will no longer have a source of free tree and shrubs as an incentive to plant shelterbelts to both protect their crops and generate other valuable ecological goods and services.

In light of recent patterns of drought and a warming climate, this program cut jeopardizes the foundations of sustainability of prairie agriculture. The shelterbelt centre opened in 1901, and over its history has produced and distributed over 650 million tree and shrub seedlings for conservation plantings. These plantings have saved countless hundreds of thousands of hectares of productive farmland from erosion. And it could be argued that a major reason that there is a significant agricultural sector on the prairies today, contributing significantly to Canada being a net exporter of food, is a direct result of this program and other conservation measures in response to the ecological crisis of the dust bowl era in the 1930s. Had this service not been in place, Canada’s ‘breadbasket’ could look more like the shifting sand dunes of North Africa. For there too in antiquity was also a highly productive grain producing region and foundation for the empire of Carthage, and now it is a barren desert.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s official explanation for the cuts are weak at best: “Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago,’ Ritz said. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.” This is short-term thinking at its worst. Conservation plantings help to buffer the full range of climatic extremes that can be experienced, not just the patterns of recent history. This rationale is tantamount to tearing the sprinkler system out of your house and selling the pipe for scrap metal because you haven’t had a house fire in the past few years. Tomorrow’s agriculture is founded in the same ecological reality as yesterday’s and today’s: no soil, no food.

It’s hard not to think that these cuts are politically motivated, rather than a necessary response to overall government austerity. Shutting down the shelterbelt program is AAFC’s response to a 10% budget reduction. Rather than tackling AAFC’s rather plump bureaucracy, senior management chose to eliminate front-line staff and services. According to the most recent Treasury Board estimates, the nearly 3 billion dollar AAFC budget supports well over 6000 employees. And nearly a third of this staffing is in what is termed “internal services”: management, human resources (HR) and other support roles (e.g. information technology – IT). This ratio of the amount of overhead to program delivery is not only ridiculously high by private sector standards, it even stretches the limits of acceptability through a government accounting lens. Re-organizing AAFC and looking for operating efficiencies by reducing the number of managers or utilizing more efficient centralized IT and HR support may have been the more difficult path to achieve a 10 percent reduction, but it would have freed the resources to retain a very worthwhile program.

Those with a strong laisez-faire political philosophy will argue that if shelterbelts deliver conservation and production benefits to land owners, the individual producers should invest in them without government support. This ignores the fact however, that significant public benefits accrue from conservation-driven agroforestry on private land in the form of clean air, soil and water conservation, preservation of biodiversity and the food security that comes from a strong and stable agricultural sector. The technical support provided and the trees and shrubs distributed through the shelterbelt program were really only an incentive for the investment in on-farm conservation. Producers still made significant and ongoing investments of time and resources in planting and tending their shelterbelts, and without compensation for the public ecological goods and services generated.

Laying waste to program that has delivered tangible benefits for over a century instead of tackling the roots of government bloat will help achieve Canada’s short-term budgetary goals, but it could put the entire sector at increased risk as we move forward with uncertainties of global climate change. The loss of the sheltbelt program is blow for agroforestry in Canada and undermines the foundations of sustainable agriculture.

Agroforestry on Public Lands – Where Costs and Benefits Can Divide

Agroforestry continues to gain recognition and adoption around the globe as a viable production system that can blend economic, social and environmental benefits. But the interest and uptake on publicly-owned lands has been underwhelming to say the least. I believe this stems in large part from the general lack of integrated timber/non-timber tenure opportunities, and the evolution of multiple-use for resource management over the past half century. The prevailing land use philosophy has been one of managing conflicts, not integrating activities to create positive outcomes.

In British Columbia, many of the western United States, and other areas where a high proportion of the land base is still held by the government, competing and sometimes conflicting land uses have been managed by developing compatible management regimes. Compatible management is not a fully integrated production system, but rather, in keeping with the ideal that everyone has the right to access public resources, it is a series of prescriptions to allow overlapping resource interests to be managed with the minimum level of conflict, or taking steps to mitigate the negative effects of one resource user on another. This is a fundamentally different approach from agroforestry management, where integrated timber/non-timber systems are designed, implemented and managed to create production synergies and reap the benefits of integration, be it through enhanced production, economic returns or other postive outcomes.

Although superficially integrated, multiple use (also sometimes referred to as integrated resource management, or coordinated resource management) also does not capture the full potential of agroforestry systems because most often the costs and benefits of production fall onto different balance sheets.

Consider for example, the widespread practice throughout western North America of forest grazing by livestock. Overlapping forage and timber tenures are a common occurrence, and historically also a common source for some very vitriolic management conflicts. Because, unless those tenures happen to be held by the same interest, there are some strong disincentives to each party wanting to adjust their management beyond their regulatory obligations. Compatible management, based on decades of research and management experience does allow for the rancher and the logger to peacefully coexist. But it rarely allows for true silvopasture, and the benefits from full integration, to flourish. Livestock grazing can reduce competing vegetation from around young trees, but the livestock manager has no incentive to adjust the timing, intensity or duration of the grazing to achieve maximum benefits. Because in compatible management frameworks, they simply don’t directly benefit by enhancing the survival and growth of trees permitted to someone else’s tenure. And likewise, forest managers have no incentive to adjust tree stocking or spatial arrangements to enhance forage production. These changes may bring about greater total production (and revenues) of timber and forage per unit area, but their only returns are generated on the future timber revenues, not annual livestock grazing.

Similar situations exist and can be used to explain the lack of forest farming systems. Fully integrated agroforestry management can create ‘virtuous circles’ in which the silvicultural activities undertaken generate benefits for the non-timber resources (NTFR – berries, mushrooms, etc.), and the management of the NTFRs is of direct benefit to the quantity and/or quality of the timber resource. But when the costs borne by one party through additional planning or management inputs do not line up with direct benefits to that same party, they will most certainly gravitate towards implementing the minimal amount of integration activity necessary to allow them continued access to their public land tenure.

Compatible management is clearly superior to the conflict and resource management chaos of a more laissez faire management philosophies. And I’m not suggesting that agroforestry will supplant conventional timber and non-timber interests any time soon. But, if agroforestry is ever to really become firmly established as an option in jurisdictions where the public owns and dictates land use standards, new integrated agroforestry tenures need to be created. Then the costs and benefits will fall on the same balance sheet, and management can be dictated by a clearer system of risks and rewards.

Disconnected in the Golden Age of Wireless

Last week I spent the better part of one work day without my electronic tethers. A technical glitch knocked out regional cellular service, and I rely upon the airwaves for all my voice and data (internet) needs. Besides setting me to thinking about the need for systems redundancy in running my business, it also gave me time to think about what it means to be connected.

Not that a short stretch of radio silence is all bad. It also keeps the unwanted and seemingly never-ending flow of unwanted communication at bay. With my contact information floating around on the web, I not only suffer highly filterable email spammers, but also frequently the interruptions of cold-call/direct mail scammers and never-take-no-for-an-answer dreamers. I’ve learned to quick filter out most of these: when someone is trying to sneak a sales pitch upon you with a teaser email they either give way too much information (e.g. launching into a long lecture about how I’m not ranking well in the search engines) or they are cryptically terse (e.g. “agroforestry… let’s talk”). But either way they still eat into my productive work time.

My brief disconnection from the information superhighway came in the same week in which I participated in a discussion on how to best extend technical and business development information to agricultural and woodlot producers. Despite the prevalence of high-tech connection options, this ‘boots in the dirt’ crowd have not fully embraced electronic information delivery. The average producer still desires a hands-on, and in-person approach to communications and learning. This, of course, pushes back against the trend of moving extension 180 degrees away from this ideal. Shrinking human and financial resources in government agencies and not-for-profit organizations, against the backdrop of a vast geography that must be served, have meant a move towards centralized expertise serving large territories. And even the ability to get someone on the phone is becoming increasingly scarce. Social media, cloud resources and discussion forums are becoming the standard, not the leading edge, of information delivery and communication.

This can present logistical problems for me because not only do my clientele not readily embrace Web 2.0, some may even look upon those that use it with derision. For someone constantly dealing with tangible production challenges, social media can be seen, at best, as something for evenings and weekend recreation, but certainly not as a legitimate business communications tool.

Counter this with a different kind of disconnection. The end markets for agricultural and forestry products, and the power to sway policy makers, is in the majority urban demographic. And while the average urban dweller has embraced the information age, they are ever increasingly detached from the land. Impressions of land management issues are now formulated virtually in sound-bites and tweets, and more disturbingly, there is a growing percentage of the population that are completely disconnected from, and apathetic to, the challenges and opportunities of natural resource management. This leaves the whole public policy debate open to an advocacy-driven process, settled by who has the best PR strategy, and not something that necessarily reflects the best situation on the ground in the short or long term.

And because the public opinion tug of war is increasingly waged in the social media, it leaves producer groups and their reluctance to use these communication outlets but with arguably the strongest direct connection to the land, with the weakest voice. And, only when we can remedy these social disconnections will the growing rural – urban divide begin to shrink.

Moving North American Agroforestry Past ‘Next Big Thing’ Status

During her plenary address to the 12th North American Agroforestry Conference, at the University of Georgia earlier this month, Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), gave a high-level endorsement for agroforestry as a new and emerging land use tool to solve a host of production and conservation challenges. Jamshed Merchant, Assistant Deputy Minister at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, also in attendance at the conference, focused his talk on international cooperation between the US and Canada on temperate agroforestry research and development. Paired with the release of the USDA’s Agroforestry Strategic Framework at the Conference, Deputy Secretary Merrigan’s strong vocal support for agroforestry could lead to a better profile and resources for agroforestry in the US if her words translate into action. Although, more than one USDA employee lamented to me that their agroforestry programs were on the chopping block in the current round of budget trimming in the US.

As a proponent for agroforestry though, I was genuinely happy for my US colleagues and this recognition from the top they received. If history is a good teacher, a higher profile for agroforestry in the US should also translate into better press in Canada, because Canadian’s generally need affirmation from the outside before they feel confident with what they are doing at home.

But as someone who has been attending (albeit intermittently) these biannual North American Agroforestry conferences for nearly two decades, the characterization of agroforestry as a nascent solution for North American agriculture brings on an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. It seems to me that politicians, bureaucrats and program leaders, on both sides of the 49th parallel have been drawing similar conclusions about agroforestry’s prospects at every one of these events I’ve attended (and countless other regional, national and international meetings). And not to be overly hypocritical, I too have been guilty at times of swaddling agroforestry in the emerging sectors ‘blanket’, out of the hope that it would attract greater attention from traditional forest and agricultural practitioners.

And this is fundamentally wrong because agroforestry is not new. Or as I often jest, agroforestry is the oldest new idea on the planet. As a traditional and indigenous land use, it has been used in tropical and temperate regions around the globe for millennia. As a conservation-production tool in temperate agriculture (think shelterbelts) it is over a century old. And as an academic subject and organized endeavor under the “agroforestry” banner, it is now decades old. No one, save for those operating on a geologic time scale, could accurately describe agroforestry as new. Perhaps it is ignored, under-utilized, under-recognized and poorly supported and resourced, but it is not new.

Continually characterizing agroforestry as novel seems like politico-speak for “we’ve ignored this issue along time and so we’re going to pretend we just discovered it.”

But for widespread recognition and adoption to occur, agroforestry proponents do not need to put yet another fresh coat of paint on the “Next Big Thing” banner. It’s time to move past talk and more substantively into action. Supportive policies, concrete research, development, and extension efforts are all needed. But more than anything, we need leaders – political, academic and industry – who will understand and vocalize agroforestry as a land use for the NOW and not just the future.

© 2009-2018 by George W. Powell. All Rights Reserved.

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