Priority Agricultural Pests of the Cariboo Region

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Priority Agricultural Pests of the Cariboo Region

Climate change is already influencing, and will continue to influence, agricultural pest dynamics and their impacts on agricultural production in the Cariboo region. During the Cariboo Adaptation Strategy planning process of the BC Agriculture and Food Climate Action Initiative, stakeholders identified a number of agricultural pests of concern and also highlighted a significant gap in regional monitoring.

Consultations were conducted using a survey and an interview process, to develop lists of priority plant, insect, disease and other agricultural pests. A ranking was assigned to these current and emerging agricultural pest threats based on individual pest’s current and potential distributions if unmanaged, the scale and severity of their impacts on various types of regional agricultural production, and the existing research, monitoring and/or management support. The consultations, combine with a separate literature review, was used to inform this ranking and to identify a gaps in regional extension, monitoring and research work, with potential project partners identified. Six recommendations are put forward in the report below to support pest management in the Cariboo-Chilcotin.

Cariboo – Priority Pests: Scan, Consultation & Action Plan

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.

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.

Use Conservation Reserves to Boost Pollinators

Vancouver Island is latest region to suffer massive honey bee losses. The BC Beekeepers’ Association and local producers estimate as many as 90% of the regional hives died-out over winter.

In the temperate belts of the world, honey bees survive the winter months as intact colonies with queens beginning egg laying in late winter to early spring. A flush of new worker bees emerges with the annual return of new plant growth and flowering. The loss of these overwintering colonies means costly replacement with new stock to start the process of rebuilding the regional bee population.

The financial losses of the individual beekeepers aside, this die-off is yet another warning of how vulnerable our food systems can be to environmental disruptions. Bees not only directly create food by converting nectar to honey, but more importantly support agriculture through their pollination work. They are commonly understood to be responsible for at least one-third of global food supplies and billions of dollars of agricultural production, although the actual figures have not been definitively measured. Bee-dependent crops include the majority of tree fruits and berries, many vegetables and important forage species, including alfalfa, clovers and other legumes, that are fed to livestock.

The cause of the Vancouver Island ‘bee-mageddon’ has not been clearly determined, but early speculation is that either Varroa mites, viruses or warmer than normal weather could have contributed. Similar colony collapses have been at play around the world in the past decade with increasing severity and frequency.

With our heavy reliance on pollinators for a portion of global food supplies, we need to rethink the risks to food security in light of potential regional or even broader bee population crashes. Combine a bee collapse with extreme drought or frost events in a major production zone and food supplies could be in serious jeopardy.

I believe part of the solution to managing this production and food security risk can come from boosting native pollinators. And this in turn, is further evidence that we need to diversify our agricultural landscapes to better replicate natural conditions. A diverse population of native and feral pollinators may not provide the same level of pollination services as mass hiving of domesticated honey bees, but they will function to ensure crops receive some pollination and fruiting if honey bee populations fail. Think of it as an insurance policy on food production with other benefits.

Hedgerows, conservation reserves, integrated riparian management zones, timber and shelterbelts can all function to provide this habitat in agricultural settings without greatly impacting the area devoted to cultivation. Native pollinators are resident in specific areas, and are not moved around like their domesticated cousins. They therefore need season-long sources of nectar that can only realistically be provided by a diverse complement of plant species that flower at different times throughout the year.

The move over the past century to remove brush and other uncultivated vegetation zones from farmland has contributed to the loss pollinator habitat (and adversely impacted other wildlife, hydrological and other natural functions). Restoring or creating new conservation reserves can therefore directly contribute to food security by rebuilding diverse habitats of flowering plants and pollinators. Urban and suburban developments have also built over large areas of pollinator habitat. Planning the rural-urban fringe with green belts to buffer development from agricultural zones can address this problem as well as serving other functions to mitigate rural-urban conflicts over noise, odour and dust.

Alternative pollinators are already used in some commercial production, such as leafcutter bees used for alfalfa pollination and bumblebees in greenhouse vegetable production. But, by and large, honey bees are the most widely chosen insects for managed pollination to achieve maximum results. But when it comes to risk management, “optimum” is often a better strategy than “maximum”. And the optimal pollination strategy needs honey bees complemented with healthy populations of native pollinators with equally healthy and diverse agricultural landscapes.

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