It was my pleasure to facilitate the now defunct BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative (a.k.a the ‘BC Agroforestry Initiative’, ‘Agroforestry BC’) from 2004 to 2013.
Until last month an archive of the projects completed under the Initiative were hosted on www.agroforestry.info. In a move of pure frugality I have shifted hosting to Google’s Blogger platform here:
Here’s to keepin’ the agroforestry revolution alive in BC.
Ecological goods and services (EGS) are the natural outputs and processes that create health, economic or social benefits. In British Columbia, as in many other jurisdictions, agricultural operations tend to occupy portions of the landscape both high in biodiversity and supporting key ecological functions. Agricultural lands have therefore become a focus for the development of payment for ecological services (PES) programs as a means to reward private-land stewardship that restores or maintains EGS.
The Ecological Services Initiative (ESI) was established in 2009 to demonstrate and test the concept of PES schemes for agricultural producers. As a next step to advance support of EGS from agricultural lands, the British Columbia Agricultural Research and Development Corporation (ARDCorp) undertook a strategic review of the ESI and explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC.
The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture is sponsoring a research project to help better understand the amount of soil nutrients deposited on livestock feeding grounds in the interior of British Columbia. This information will be used to build reference values that can aid ranchers in understanding the carry-over fertilizer effects from manure and feed remnants deposited on seasonal feeding areas (sites used for pasture, hay or other crops during the growing season, and also for feeding, watering and bedding livestock in the dormant season). Through better nutrient management planning, producers can lower the costs for their forage production while minimizing any risk to the environment, through avoiding over application.
Fifty-eight ranching operations from Kelowna to Smithers, and points in-between will allow researchers to access their feeding sites this winter (starting January 2015) to take samples of beef cattle manure and/or feed remnants. These samples will be sent for laboratory analysis to determine the total nutrient content (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and its availability for crop growth.
Those participating in the study will be receiving, free of charge, the results of the analysis of the nutrients deposited on their own ranch, as well as the regional averages.
Expressions of interest to participate in this research project are now closed. Results are expected to be released in mid-2015.
Funding for this research is being provided through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
There can be many motivations for adopting agroforestry practices. While not a cure-all for land management, agroforestry presents a range of viable production options that can provide social, economic and environmental benefits through integrated use.
I think it can be constructive sometimes to view a silvopasture (integrated tree, forage and livestock production areas) as a form of insurance in the ranching sector. A living insurance policy through diversification that works on many levels.
First, it can be a form of production insurance as a means to diversify grazing resources on the ranch. Trees can help conserve moisture in their understory, and they delay the maturity of forbs and grasses. This means seasonal drought or high temperatures that can dessicate open grown-plants, are tempered in the silvopasture. These types of droughts can occur annually in some areas or are less frequent but still expected in other areas. But in both cases, having a portion of the ranch’s forage production derived from silvopastures insures against total forage losses. And silvopastures can maintain a source of higher quality green feed, when other grasses and forages have weathered away. Moreover, in northern areas, the main benefit may come from increased frost protection in the spring and fall. The ability of the overstory canopy to erase small radiative frosts adds valuable frost-free days to the growing season, thus extending the availabilty of higher quality grazing resources.
Second, it comes in the form of insurance for the whole operation against a significant downturn in beef cattle prices. Cattle markets are cyclical. Always have been, always likely will be (and I don’t see supply management systems taking root in the beef sector). Therefore, even the best and most efficient ranch operations in the world still need to plan for significant market down cycles where their profit margins will be dictated by conditions outside of their control. The BSE crisis in Canada has also taught us that export markets can collapse rapidly and for prolonged periods, with little fore warning in the modern globalized, food supply chains. Making sustainable use of another renewable resource on the ranch provides insurance against losses in your beef business bankrupting the operation. Silvopasture, and the opportunity to sell timber or other forest and non-timber forest products during a low in cattle prices, may be the difference for some ranches between staying in the business for the long-run and falling victim to short-term market pressures.
Third, silvopastures, through the host of ecological goods and services (EG&S) they provide, contribute to building and sustaining social insurance for individual ranches and the sector as a whole. Understandable, some producers may not relish the situation, but all must acknowledge the facts: if you live in a rural area, you are now in the minority. And if you farm or ranch, you are in the minority. The political power resides largely in urban centres, and without a constant and deliberate effort to build goodwill in communities, regions and nations, ranchers are more vulnerable to misguided policies and that will wrap them too tight in red tape to move, let alone carry out their businesses sustainably and profitably. Silvopasture and all agroforestry, through providing EG&S, aesthetics and other non-tangible benefits, contribute to sustaining the social license that the beef sector needs to keep operating in world increasingly dominated by urban dwellers divorced from the realities of agriculture.
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.