Trees on Farms in British Columbia

Category Archives:Non-timber Forest Resources

Trees on Farms in British Columbia

This week’s release of the 2016 Census of Agriculture data provided an opportunity to check up on the use of trees on British Columbia (BC) farms for production and conservation. There are no statistics gathered to help us differentiate what management systems are employed, hence the numbers presented here represent the use of trees in a blend of conventional horticulture, farm forestry and agroforestry.

All raw data has been derived from the Statistics Canada’s Census of Agriculture for 2011 and 2016, tables 004-0200, 004-0208, 004-0214, 004-0218, 004-0219 and 004-0220.

Tree Fruit and Nut Production Increases

When classed by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), 3,180 farms representing 18.1% of all BC farms were categorized as fruit or tree nut farms, up from 17.0% in 2011, and well ahead of the national proportion of 4.1%. These numbers however, include a significant number of berry producers (blueberry, raspberry) concentrated in the Lower Mainland region. In specific tree fruit categories, BC has 3,921 ha of apples (0.4% increase from 2011), 259 ha of pears (0.4% decrease from 2011), 191 ha of plums (1.1% increase from 2011), 1,987 ha of sweet cherries (17.5% increase from 2011), 42 ha of sour cherries (5.0% increase from 2011), 522 ha of peaches (2.2% increase from 2011) and 98 ha of apricots (a decrease of 4.3% from 2011). These plantings represent 22, 29, 29, 91, 4, 20 and 66%, respectively, of the national totals for these tree fruits.

Tree fruit production is highly concentrated within the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan-Similkameen and Central Okanagan Regional Districts account for approximately one-third of the provincial tree fruit and nut farms, and 79% of the area planted. Domestic markets are important for fruit and nut sales, but export markets are on the rise. The large expansion in cherry plantings can be almost wholly attributed to BC sweet cherry exports to China creating much stronger demand for these high quality soft fruits.

Big Increases in Forest Products Sales

Forest product sales from BC farms rose 40.1% from 2011 to over $6.3 million, and representing about 9% of the total sales of forest products from farmland across Canada. The large increase in raw log sales from farms reflect, in part, shrinking supplies from Crown lands, where the mountain pine beetle has run its course and salvage harvest volumes are declining. Overall however, wood sales from farms in BC remains a very small proportion of the harvest from Public lands, and sales from farmland have not yet rebounded to pre-pine beetle levels.

Non-timber Forest Production Declining

Production of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) on BC farms has weakened since 2011. The total number of farms growing Christmas trees has declined by 21%, and the area planted by 23%. Total farm area dedicated to Christmas trees now sits at 2,016 ha, but importantly from a total industry standpoint, does not include the area of public lands used for Christmas tree harvest.

BC’s burgeoning bigleaf maple tapping sector gave mixed signals on it’s growth. The number of farms reporting maple taps decreased by 7% from 82 to 76 farms, concentrated heavily on Vancouver Island. A portion of this decline may however be attributed to errors in prior reporting. Some interior farms may have included taps on paper birch trees as maple taps in statistics prior to 2016. Birch tapping data are not collected by Statistics Canada. Encouragingly, though the number of farms reporting taps declined, the number of spiles employed increased by 11% to 4009. The number of maple spiles in BC only accounts for a fraction of the Canadian total (dominated in Quebec and Ontario). Bigleaf maple syrup insiders also note the number of small-scale producers tapping for their own consumption (and thus not captured in the Census) is likely in the hundreds on the Island.

Trees for Conservation Expands

The use of shelterbelts and windbreaks on BC farms (both natural and planted) continues to increase. Over 27% of BC farms employed shelterbelts in 2016, a relative increase of 40% in use of this conservation / agroforestry practice from 2011. BC still lags the national average with 36.4% of all Canadian farms using shelterbelts or windbreaks. BC Peace River regional farms have significantly higher use of shelterbelts with approximately 58% of farms in the Peace River and Northern Rockies Regional Districts reporting this practice.

Exotic Wild Berries and Fruits

For some, wild berry picking is a means to supplement their income. It is tradition and culture for many. For others it is a summer ritual or a just pleasant way to spend the afternoon in the great outdoors. Whatever the reason, harvesting some of the natural bounty of wild foods is a pastime that is healthful on many levels: it reconnects you with origins of our food, gives you an opportunity for outdoor activity and exercise, and the fruits of your labour are packed with good-for-you nutrients and phyto-chemicals.

There is sufficient variety in the wild berries and fruits of North America to fill 100 posts on the topic, so rather than itemizing the common berries of summer (Saskatoons, huckleberries/wild blueberries, black berries, and others) I would like to share some of the more exotic berries and wild fruits I enjoy in the wild west. These can be more difficult to find, and you many not garner more than few pints for your day’s efforts, but quality and novelty more than makes up for the lack of quantity.

Berries and fruit, as with any wild treasure, should only be gathered if it is legal and safe to do so. I would encourage you to live by these wild harvest rules:

  1. Know what you are picking. Always make sure you are certain of the species you are picking and eating;
  2. Know where you are picking. Don’t trespass and make sure you know the site history (i.e. don’t pick on contaminated-polluted soil or in an area that has been recently treated with pesticides);
  3. Come prepared. Bring a map of the area, compass/GPS, bear spray, food, water, sturdy footwear and layered clothing. Be bear (and other predator) aware and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back; and,
  4. Only harvest what you need, and never take all the fruits from a given patch or bush – it is bad karma to do so; leave some for the wild creatures that depend on them for food and so new plants will establish.
  5. If you pack it in, pack it out. Do not leave your trash in the woods.

With those good words to live by, here are few of my favourite exotic wild fruits for those want to take a walk on the wild side:

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) – A delicate cousin to the raspberry and blackberry (none of which are technically berries, but rather they are aggregate fruits, but I’ll stow the botanical jargon for another post). This low growing shrub has large light-green leaves that somewhat resemble maple leaves, with five pointed lobes, and toothed edges. The large five-petaled, white flowers grow in clusters at the ends of the stems, and the green to light pink fruit ripens into a deep red. Eating a ripe thimbleberry has always been a summer treat for me. You likely will never see this berry in a market, nor be able to gather these fruits in great quantity to take home – their flesh is so tender and watery that even their own weight will render them into a mushy paste once picked and stacked into a bucket. I prefer to enjoy them as a wild snack on the go.



Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) – These berries grow on large shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees, approximately 5-m tall. The large, compound leaves are each composed of 5 to 9 pointed leaflets. The flowers are small and creamy-white, and form in small, pyramid-shaped clusters, giving rise to numerous small fruits, which are bright red when mature. Red elderberries are found on moist ground in clearings and under partial shade from open forests. They are delicious fresh or processed into juice and jelly. They cure well in the sun and can be dried for later use.

red elderberry


Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) – not be confused with its botanical relations, the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherries form on small trees, from 1- to 5-m tall. The bark is smooth and grey in colour. Its leaves are elliptical, and sharply pointed, and finely toothed around the edges. White flowers, formed in small clusters, give rise to small cherries (0.5 to 1.0 cm diameter), slightly elongated, and ranging in colour from bright-red to almost black. The flesh of pin cherries is very tart and encases a large stone. The astringent tartness of this fruit is very much an acquired taste. Many people prefer to boil the fruit in order to extract juice, which makes for a fantastic flavouring or base to make jelly or syrup.

pin cherry


Highbush Cranberry (Virburnum edule) – borne on small to mid-sized shrubs (approx. 0.5 to 2-m tall) with smooth red-coloured bark. Leaves form in opposite pairs along the stems with three shallow lobes at their tips. Flowers form in small, round clusters and develop into shiny red-orange berries, with a large flat seed in each berry. Highbush cranberries are quite acidic, though the taste can be tempered by autumn frost.

highbush cranberry


Honey Berry (False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina racemosa aka Maianthemum racemosum). These exotic berries grown on a tall perennial plant with broad elliptical leaves alternating along arching stems. Clusters of small white to cream-coloured flowers form at the ends of the stems and develop into small, somewhat seedy berries. Immature berries are mottled green and brown, turning red when ripe. These berries are a favourite of the bears, and it is sometimes difficult to find ripe berries in bear country. The ripe berries are extremely sweet and delicious, but when unripened they are inedible save for those with the strongest of stomachs.

honey berry

Forest Farming Establishment Options

As measured by social media site buzz and search engine keywords employed, agroforestry, as a topic of interest and discussion is trending higher. And forest farming, the deliberate integration and/or cultivation of non-timber crops (NTCs) in a forest setting is also on the rise. Much of the discussion and available practical information relating to forest farming centres around forest gardens. Forest gardens, patterned after home gardens in southeast Asia and popularized by Robert Hart’s book, are structured assemblages of food trees, shrubs and ground crops, arranged to leverage positive ecological interactions and make efficient use of small spaces. There are however, forest farming options suited to more extensive forest management situations, and by adopting these practices they can contribute to simultaneous demands for more food, fibre and conservation.

Throughout the world there are large tracts of managed forest that, through some creative silviculture and integrated planning and management, can be converted to forest farms. And because the methods for setting up forest farming are the same that may be employed in intensive silviculture to improve wood quality and value, they have the dual benefits of diversifying production and generating incremental income, without sacrificing either wood products or the ecological goods and services afforded by forest ecosystems.

The options outlined below include some general logistical considerations for establishing forest farming and are somewhat independent of where you may wish to deploy forest farming, although the examples I provide are regionally-specific to the Pacific Northwest of North America.

Options for Establishing Forest Farming
1. Optimize Existing Potentials. Often the simplest establishment option is to cultivate adapted understory species or manage and harvest non-timber components from existing trees or shrubs in a closed-forest setting. The advantages to this type of forest farming include the minimal need for establishment inputs and labour (i.e. the natural tendency of the forest will be towards full occupancy of the site), and the stand structure maximizes tree density, so no changes to stocking standards needed. This is a potentially important consideration where forest stocking is set by regulation. The primary disadvantage is the lack of control over balancing overstory and understory resource sharing which limits the range of NTCs that can be grown.

But that being said, these systems are good for NTCs that thrive with a full overstory (e.g. wild ginger, ginseng, and ferns). It is also good for producing non-timber products from trees (e.g. sap or nuts), where management and health of the tree is generally proportional to a healthy yield of the non-timber components.

2. Manage Stand Density and Tree Form. This option is established by thinning forest stands to a lower density and pairing that management with pruning to open up the understory. This set-up is highly flexible to balance overstory and understory and therefore can be tailored to suit a wide range of tree-understory crop mixtures. The thinning and pruning can provide direct tree growth benefits and increase log value on the timber crop. And indeed for some tree species, without pruning following the thinning, they can become much more ‘branchy’ and with tapered stems, both of which tend to reduce wood value. The boughs and thinnings may also have economic value, adding extra income from the system to offset the costs of the silvicultural work.

These forest farming systems are good for NTCs that thrive with a partial overstory (e.g. huckleberries). The reduced canopy can work well in semi-arid regions where partial shading slows evaporation from the soil, but is not blocking solar input to the extent that it significantly depresses photosynthesis in the understory crop.

3. Modify Spatial Patterns. The third general option for establishing forest farming involves manipulating the grouping of trees or tall shrubs on a site through either planting or thinning to create patches with gaps or small openings between. Creation of larger patches is good for species that like ‘life on the edge’, (e.g. saskatoon, hawthorn and soopolallie) with their leaves in full sun and their roots in the shade. Indeed many permaculture systems are created to maximize edge as well, recognizing how productive these environments can be. Smaller gaps are suitable for more shade-tolerant understory cultivation, including many of the same species that are growing in either of the preceding forest farming options.

This type of forest farming system is good for overstory trees that either don’t respond well to thinning or aggressively self-thin or self-prune (making the silvicultural work of dubious value). These set-ups of patches and gaps may also mimic the natural patterns of open, fire-maintained forests. They therefore can be used as an ecosystem restoration option which is much needed throughout western North America where fire suppression has created millions of hectares of unhealthy, in-grown forests at a high risk of succumbing to catastrophic wildfires.

‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Redux

Summer is upon us and an army of grey-market gatherers are descending on the forests of British Columbia to harvest berries, mushrooms, floral greenery and an array of other botanical products, part of a largely informal non-timber forest products (NTFP) sector worth somewhere near a half billion dollars a year in sales.

The BC-based wild NTFP harvest has steadily marched towards big business in the past few decades in the shadow of the conventional forest (read timber) industry with increasing numbers of pickers and wholesale businesses capitalizing on the natural wealth of the province. However, because the harvest of NTFPs from Crown land is largely unregulated (and in my interpretation of the Land Act, most of the commercial harvest is in fact illegal), the emergence of this industry has raised concerns about its impact on the forest ecosystems and on the aboriginal and other traditional users who depend on them.

We have little research documenting the impact the removal of NTFPs is having on wildlife and forest processes, but empirical evidence has been mounting for years that the unmanaged commercial NTFP harvest is succumbing to overexploitation by an unscrupulous segment of the industry that has no concern for sustainability or other users. On Vancouver Island, once prime areas for salal collection, a staple of the floral greenery market, are now only producing a sparse understory of low-quality plants. Transient picking crews are moving from site to site and harvesting everything in sight, often leaving garbage behind and disturbing other vegetation and soil for ease of their access. Unethical harvesters, supported by some equally unethical wholesale buyers with no concern with how or where their product is sourced, are tearing up the old growth forest floors with rakes while looking for mushrooms, irreparably impairing future production. In the southern interior there are examples of vanloads of ‘picking’ crews raking mountaintops clean of huckleberries and in the process destroying plants, leaving nothing for wildlife or First Nations harvesters exercising their traditional food gathering rights.

Five years ago, the Forest Practices Board, in a report titled “Integrating Non-Timber Forest Products Into Forest Planning and Practices in British Columbia”, recommended the provincial government should increase its involvement in the management of NTFPs. The report emphasized that the current system does not give harvesters or buyers any incentive to manage these resources sustainably or to consult with First Nations. First Nations throughout BC have unextinguished rights and title to timber and non-timber resources on public land in BC and these rights are routinely ignored by NTFP harvesters. Five years have passed since the release of this report with full public recognition of the problem that has been decades in the development, but very little action has been taken to regulate the activity and provide security to the legitimate players in the sector. What we are left with is homegrown example of the tragedy of the commons.

In Garrett Harden’s seminal 1968 Science article “The Tragedy of the Commons’ he used the analogy of the unregulated use of a pasture shared by livestock herders. Each herder in trying to maximize their own production increases their herd size whenever possible, but the positive and negative consequences of this action is not shared equally. The herder receives all of the proceeds from each additional animal produced, but the pasture is slightly degraded by each additional animal and this negative externality is shared among all herders using the pasture. Consequently, for each individual herder there is little incentive to conserve or restrain their activity and overgrazing of the pasture is the result. So too the tragedy of BC’s NTFP commons – each harvester is fully rewarded for each additional mushroom/berry/branch they pick, but everyone (including other non-commerical users and wild species) share in the pain of overexploitation.

For the NTFP industry to develop sustainably in this province there must be incentives to invest in resource management and penalties for those who otherwise would not voluntarily adhere to sustainable and ethical management. Regulation of the NTFP harvest in BC is a complex issue deserving something greater than a one-size-fits-all approach. The commercial resources are widely dispersed over an enormous forest land base and often the objects of harvest are transient in nature (not growing in the same location from year to year), making tenure options complicated. But complexity is no longer a suitable excuse for inaction. We have examples of businesses, such as ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ in Port Alberni, who on their own initiative have set very high standards for what, when and how things are harvested, and employing a very progressive and enlightened approach to ensuring the safety and quality of their product, and equitable treatment of harvesters and other stakeholders. We need to draw on the experience and insights of businesses like ‘First Nations Wildcrafters, BC’ and get the process of regulating NTFP harvest in BC underway.

With the current downturn in the forest industry, increasing numbers of laid off workers may now turn to harvesting NTFPs as their unemployment benefits begin to wind down. Without some concrete actions towards legitimizing and regulating the NTFP industry in BC then the price we will all pay for continued inaction is the loss of part of our collective natural heritage and the loss of the opportunities to develop sustainable rural jobs and economic stability.

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