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.

Finding an Endless Summer with Agroforestry

While Mike Hynson and Robert August’s only tangential connection to agroforestry was perhaps in the old-school wooden surf boards they used, the ‘endless summer’ I chase is more of a reprieve from a summer-ending frost descending on the garden. And agroforestry practices, specifically through strategically placing a sheltering canopy of trees or shrubs, can be a great benefit to those of us in the north or the way-down-south who roll with the rhythm of the changing seasons.

Living with the four seasons means planning your production in the frost-free period between the last of winter’s fury in the spring and the first frosts of autumn. This window of opportunity sets the range of crops that can be grown in temperate and boreal climates. This limitation is expressed particularly in the fall when many crops are in the final stages of ripening; an untimely early frost can undo an entire year’s work, or at minimum, lower crop quality and yield. And as is if often the case, an early frost can be followed by 3, 4 or more weeks of good growing conditions. Lengthening out the growing season by month or more is possible by ‘surfing’ over the early radiative frosts that can form when daytime heating is not sufficient to balance the heat loss on clear, cool autumn nights. Agroforestry plantings have the advantage of trapping and releasing heat, keeping the fall frosts away, so the crops below can live to grow another day.

Trees and the woody stems of tall shrubs, being largely composed of water, are very efficient at absorbing the radiant energy from the sun. This creates a natural heat reservoir that emits long-wave radiation into the surrounding area. The tree’s canopy also blocks heat loss from the ground to the sky, reflecting some of this wayward energy back towards the ground. These forces acting in concert build and retain higher night-time air temperatures and nullify radiative frosts that occur when heat escapes from a crop’s surface to an unobstructed sky. This moderating influence in cold climates can significantly extend the growing season by reducing or eliminating late spring or early fall frost damage. Research I conducted in central Alberta demonstrated a partial cover of trembling aspen could extend the frost-free growing period by an impressive 41 days in the northern prairie-parkland zone and by more than two months in the boreal where frosts are not unknown in August.

Plastic tunnels, wind machines and portable heaters can also serve to drive away light frost events but they don’t share the other benefits of agroforestry plantings: sequestering carbon, creating wildlife habitat, other sheltering benefits against wind and water erosion, and producing other useful and valuable products (wood, nuts, fruit, boughs, etc.). And besides that, I think that I shall never see a poly-vinyl chloride shelter as lovely as a tree.

When the cold temperatures are sustained for longer periods or a below-zero air mass engulfs your area, agroforestry systems are in the same proverbial boat as conventional plantings. Agroforestry can only delay the onset of winter conditions; it can’t prevent them. But a well-planned agroforestry planting can buy you some valuable additional growing days. So, ‘catch a wave’ and extend your growing season with agroforestry.

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