Ecological Services Initiative Review

Ecological Services Initiative Review

Farm Nature

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) has undertaken a strategic review of the ESI and explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC.

If you would like to receive a copy of review and recommendations when it is released please contact me with this form. Please type “ESI Review” in the subject line.

AEI-GF2-ARDCorp logos and text

Nutrient Management Planning for Ranchers

winter feeding

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.


Pine Beetle Pain Begins


…but it’s not too late to act now and shorten the suffering.

For almost two decades we have watched a slow-motion forestry crisis unfold in British Columbia. The mountain pine beetle epidemic has wiped out mature pine trees over an area larger than Florida. It has spurred a virtual mountain of studies and speculation on the future for forestry-dependent communities in the Province (of which I acknowledge, that I have certainly added my fair share). Indeed, the volume of paper dedicated to this subject has probably kept one or two milling and pulping operations going over the past few years.

Yesterday, forest product giants Canfor and West Fraser Timber announced that there is insufficient timber volume remaining after the conclusion of salvage logging to support their milling operations in Quesnel and Houston, respectively. This was met by some with shock that it is occuring so soon. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. This has been an inevitability from the start of the beetle explosion. And the large industry players will not sit by and watch their economic fortunes dwindle before they act. They are, and will continue, to act pre-emptively to keep their operations efficient and profitable. These large corporations exist by producing the largest volume of forest products at the lowest cost for export markets. This will increasingly come in the form of consolidating manufacturing centres and through reducing jobs.

In many respects the job losses announced yesterday will be the first bit of real social and economic pain inflicted by the pine beetle on B.C. For many interior communities, the pine beetle epidemic has been a major economic driver for the past decade. The huge stock of dead trees left in the wake of the beetle needed to be harvested and processed while the timber still had value to the forest products sector. And this has keep the mills humming, the logging trucks rolling and the saws sawing. It is now at the point where the amount of merchantable timber in the areas first affected by the beetle is too low to justify logging. That lost volume means there isn’t enough to keep the lumber mills working at sufficient capacity for the corporations to justify their continued existince. And when the mills close there are direct job losses and many indirect job losses that are tied to forestry.

The next shoe to drop will come from the secondary manufacturers. The forest products sector is highly integrated. Waste from the sawmills (e.g. wood chips and sawdust) support a host of other enterprises. When less trees are cut for lumber, there is less wood chips for pulp mills and oriented-strand board manufacturers. Less sawdust means MDF and wood pellet operations have less feedstock. Once again, when the volumes drop below an economic threshold (which is never zero) the millls will close before they run at a loss.

And for many small towns in BC’s interior this will mean even less employment opportunties and more pain.

Timber tenure consolidation was also part of the announcement yesterday. West Fraser and Canfor will be swapping timber cutting rights to concentrate the remaining timber supply. Much as I speculated back in 2009 (Timber Sellers Should Brace For Another Round of Consolidation) more of this is likely to come. It will lead to more mill closures and will also impact small-scale timber sellers (e.g. woodlot owners), once they are locked into to monopolistic regional timber buying zones.

Things are bad. Things are likely to get worse. But all is not lost. The level of response to this crisis has certainly not kept pace to the level of finger-pointing and ‘buck-passing’, and Governments at all levels have not acted enough to prevent or minimize this first round of pine beetle pain. But that doesn’t mean we collectively can’t start with some earnest diversification efforts. The studies have been done, the talk has been talked. The forests are a wealth of non-timber forest resources that could be developed – everything from natural health products to bioenergy. We just need some political will and supportive policies to make it happen.

Silvopastures as Ranch Insurance


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.

Canada’s Food Safety Paradox

Total Recall is not just the title of this past summer’s sci-fi blockbuster remake. It also aptly describes the ever expanding scramble to remove beef products processed by XL Foods from the pantries of the nation because of possible E coli contamination. This costly disruption to the food supply also highlights how quickly and extensively a lapse in standards at just one location can impact tens of thousands of consumers across the country. This incident is far from isolated; it was only a few short years ago that listeria outbreak originating in processed meats killed and caused illness in many. It exposes a fundamental weakness in having a highly centralized and concentrated food processing sector. And it also suggests that past decade of increased food processing standards, paradoxically, may be increasing the risk of spreading of food borne illness and contamination.

Meat processing capacity used to be distributed among many regional entities from small local abbatoirs through medium and larger enterprises. In the name of protecting the health and welfare of Canadian consumers (and who would argue publically that we shouldn’t raise the bar as high as possible on food safety?), and Canada’s international reputation as a source of safe and high quality food, Federal and Provincial governments have implemented a series of regulatory changes that have dramatically raised the per unit costs of slaughtering and processing.

But these changes may have only created the perception of increased safety and quality. In fact, quite the opposite may be happening. The higher costs associated with implementing all the required standards has pushed many of the small facilities out of business (taking with them many farmers and ranchers who can no longer get their meat used for farm-gate sales processed in a licenced facility), because they simply didn’t have the resources to implement the necessary changes nor the slaughter volume in order to make a fair return on their infrastructure investments. For the medium and larger packers it has accelerated the pace at which the industry has concentrated. As costs go up, the larger, high volume operations are better be able to create economies of scale.

The result being that meat processing is now more highly concentrated than ever before, with a few large operations serving most of the Canadian retail and institutional buyers. But with this high concentration comes big vulnerabilities. If there is a lapse in operating standards (as is apparantly the case at XL), one or two infected animals can cross contaminate the meat from thousands of other carcasses. If you have problem in a small facility, the potential impacts on an individual are just as severe, but the scale of those affected are limited to a local or regional distribution. But when you have a problem at an XL-sized facility the potential impacts are distributed from coast to coast to coast, and beyond to the export markets.

Industry has responded to the high-cost food safety regulatory framework in Canada by investing in bigger, centralized operations. But bigger is not always better when it comes to food safety. Support your local food processors before they too fall victim to economies of scale.

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