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.

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.


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