Trees on Farms in British Columbia

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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.

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.

Ecological Services Initiative Review

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.

UPDATE: The Ecological Services Initiative is now known as the “Farmland Advantage” Project

Access the review here.

AEI-GF2-ARDCorp logos and text

Closing the Local Food System Loop

…by recycling poop.

For several years I’ve been working from a theory that we could be near a radical shift in our primary food production systems – an Agrarian Devolution. Barring the technological leap that brings on a cheap, abundant fuel source, or a massive drop in global population, the combination of high fuel, fertilizer and transportation costs and conservation challenges are making high input, centralized production and distribution less viable. If unhindered, economics will drive agriculture back to its agrarian roots of local production for local consumption. High input costs and high transportation costs should re-establish local food networks as the low-cost option in most areas.

Quality niche and specialty foods aside, the general populace still votes with their wallets. And despite a lot of lip service to local food, that vote is still very much for low cost, convenient options. It is a safe bet to assume therefore, that if (or when) local food starts to trump imported food on a cost basis (albeit with both at a higher nominal level than today) sales will surely follow.

Now, those with libertarian-leanings are probably thinking, ‘market signals will push our food systems back to the local level – stay out of the way and let it happen, end of story, get on with your life.’ But with the politics of food as it is, that shift may not be as simple as sliding along a supply-demand curve. Food is big business, with billions of dollars, rupees, yen, euros and yuan on the line. The existing multi-nationals have a vested interest in squeezing out expansion in local competition. And they have never been above lobbying governments to distort markets in their favour through twisting agricultural subsidy programs – the chief offenders being in the United States of America and the EU. Fifty years from now our food system could look the same as today, if governments are willing to squeeze their citizens for taxes to subsidize cheap food. Large-scale agricultural producers in some regions will continue to win, but the total number of farmers will decline, and small-scale producers would continue to live on the edge of going broke.

I believe, a little foresight and planning is needed to promote efficient, sustainable production. We need to level the playing field with public agricultural policies and support programs that focus on production efficiencies. That is to say, food production is worthy of some public funding, but don’t base that support on the total volume of output or the area in production, but rather the ratio of outputs to inputs. Expand a framework supporting a transition to lower input costs without greatly sacrificing production levels. And this should include closing the production loop in local agriculture systems by returning our food, human and agricultural waste streams back into food and energy production on much larger scale than is currently practiced. Close the loop, recycle your poop.

A few examples of what can be done with existing technology:

1. Mandate phosphorus recovery from every sewage treatment facility. Phosphorus is an essential element for crop production and coincidentally (or maybe not so much) one of the primary water pollutants in the western world. Humans contribute over 3 million tonnes of phosphorus annually to global septic systems. And many technologies already exist to recover phosphorus from sewage, including ‘mouse-trap’ cones developed at the University of British Columbia that pulls this valuable plant nutrient out of sewage effluent and creates a high-quality slow-release fertilizer. Local waste becomes a local resource.

2. Build the infrastructure to create biodiesel from algae fed on sewage water. There are already many private enterprises with viable systems to turn oils extracted from sewage-pond-grown algae into biodiesel. We can use carbon taxes on fossil-fuels to build a network of algae farms and biodiesel plants, and then sell back the fuel to agricultural producers and processors at cost without an accompanying tax. Incentives could also be given for farm-scale algae production ponds utilizing on-site manure and crop wastes to generate some or all of the on-farm energy needs. Again this turns an environmental liability into a production efficiency.

3. Use sewage sludge or waste water to fertilize farm forestry plantations. The trees then become a source of fibre for solid wood products or bioenergy, and can also be placed on-farm to serve soil and water conservation roles. A potential win-win-win solution.

And there are other practical options available too, including biogas generation or mandatory community composting programs that return that valuable humus to build soils. The important first step is removing any incentives that externalize the costs of waste generated in our food systems by letting producers and consumers pollute water with excess nutrients. And then through directed R&D and selective taxation, provide support to production, recovery and regeneration systems that operate at the highest efficiency.

The Great Christmas Tree Debate

Oh Christmas tree. Oh Christmas tree. How vocal are your detractors.

Among the great environmental debates of our time, the annual fake-versus-real tree argument now seems as firmly rooted in western culture as the all-out marketing assault that will herald the holiday season in and out. Post-Convenient Truth, the carbon footprint of a real tree is now a focal point for those advocating PVC ‘trees’ as the way to go.

The American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), a shill for various petrochemical and plastic manufacturing interests, claims (without publishing any data) that artificial trees have a smaller carbon footprint than real farmed trees. According to the ACTA website:

…the best way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to choose an artificial Christmas tree and to use it for ten or more years.

And it’s true that PVC ‘trees’ are as ACTA claims on their website: light weight and durable just like a sewage pipe. But besides the obvious shortcomings of having to look at a fake tree for 10 years, with all the fundamental charm of the aforementioned sewage pipe, the notion that durability automatically translates to environmental benefits is fundamentally flawed.

Real trees are indeed sacrificed to the Yuletide season, but there is no deforestation involved with harvesting the vast majority Christmas trees. You are simply taking the thinnings from an overstocked forest stand that would otherwise choke out and die as the stand matures, or more likely, it is from a Christmas tree farm or semi-natural production area, where every tree that is cut is replaced by new recruit into the stand.

The net effect from most of North America’s 45 million natural Christmas trees is carbon neutral, excluding production inputs and transport. And given that most fake ‘trees’ are borne from the injection molds of China, it’s a good bet there will be considerably fewer petrochemical inputs and miles between a real tree’s source and your parlour than the fake ones.

Chipping and mulching programs in most areas now allow for trees to be recycled into the soil at the end of the holiday season, and “stump cultured” trees result in an even softer environmental impact. Stump culture is a regenerative production system that involves leaving the bottom 2 or 3 branches when a mature tree is harvested. A new shoot can then grow from near the cut, or the uppermost of these remaining branches to form a new treetop. Christmas tree producers in the Kootenay region of BC have successfully stump cultured up to 6 or 7 successive tree crops from the same root base, and have been doing so for the better part of century.

But I say put aside the carbon footprint debate. You can easily offset the couple of kilos of carbon in typical Christmas-sized tree by foregoing extensive lighting and animatronic Santa displays, or by not driving back and forth across town or country to get your tree in a big-box store. The strongest benefits of real Christmas trees comes from the social and psychological impacts.

First, unless you are reading this from somewhere in the Middle Kingdom (and I’m guessing you’re not, given my repeated subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at the totalitarian, human-rights-abusing Chi-Coms that run the country – my posts are sure to be filtered from Chinese page views) you are not supporting a local business by going plastic. Real trees support real jobs and rural livelihoods in a sustainable and renewable sector across North America. Fake ones fatten the bottom line of overseas manufacturers and big-box retailers.

Second, it draws us, if only in a small and mostly symbolic way, into a natural cycle of birth, death and renewal. Life rarely offers us a choice between consuming or not consuming. The difference comes in whether you live inside or outside the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the planet. Real Christmas trees follow that natural cycle and flow. And in a dominant global culture that is ever-increasingly disconnected from the land and natural systems it is crucial to maintain these tangible ties to regenerative processes.

And finally, the main reason to opt for a natural tree is that it feeds the soul. Real trees have an intrinsic beauty and a wonderful smell that can’t be replicated in the hydrocarbon and volatile organic off-gassing from a PVC replicant.

Happy holidays everyone.


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