Hearty Winter Vegetables

Regarded within Central Kootenay as the core of agricultural activity, the Creston Valley has the potential to produce food for the entire Kootenay Region and beyond.

But there are a few problems in the way.

Like many other farming communities, Creston faces challenges including aging farmers and year-round vegetable production in a colder climate. Often when consumers purchase imported vegetables during the winter, they continue the habit during warmer months, undermining local farming.

With IAF’s help, the College of the Rockies took a two-birds-one-stone approach to these issues. From its Creston Valley campus greenhouse, it educated children, youth and families on local food production and provided opportunities to grow winter crops.

Jean Hoover, a program participant and avid gardener who supplies farmers markets, praises the program’s potential to empower the community: “Its about allowing everyone to participate in food production and showing you can get something from practically nothing…even people without yards are growing wonderful produce from their balconies!” Besides demonstrating practical techniques for winter growing, Hoover finds the mere idea behind the program is a powerful tool. “When it comes to local winter crops,” she explains, “there is a gap in the market…this is a concept with tremendous commercial potential.”

True to Hoover’s prediction, program coordinator Anita Sawyer confirms that producers have already begun to diversify their crops and growing season to include a winter harvest. Sawyer believes the year-round production model holds great potential for growers across BC and anticipates an increasing focus on locally produced food, rather than “relying on produce being trucked in.”

According to Sawyer, the project also facilitated connections between agri-businesses, youth and community. “We are seeing many high school student participants exploring careers in agriculture and getting their friends involved.”

With the education of current farmers, the development of future ones, and increasing awareness of local food production on the part of consumers, the winter harvest project is helping to secure the long-term growth and sustainability of BC agriculture. While the information is particularly valuable in the northern climates, the principles of all-season grown can be applied everywhere.

Funding: $55,000 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Nets framework (A0588)

Nutrient Conservation with Dairy Cattle

When it comes to cattle, Fraser Valley dairy farmers have their hands full.

Large herd sizes mean dealing with increasing amounts of manure which must be managed properly. Much of this nutrient resource can be returned to the soil, but farmers must be able to store the manure during winter to ensure spreading at proper times. Storage is expensive and manure management can limit the growth of the dairy industry, not just in the Fraser Valley but throughout Canada.

This led IAF and councils across the country to fund the University of British Columbia (UBC) in finding a solution.

Using technology they developed to remove phosphorus from municipal sewage waste-water, UBC researchers adapted it for use on dairy cattle manure, allowing producers to recover excess phosphorus and nitrogen as a concentrated slow release fertilizer, struvite.

Not only does nutrient conservation reduce the need for manure storage and decrease disposal costs for farmers, the struvite created provides a potential new source of income for farmers.

Researchers have even discovered that the biogas produced during the process can potentially be converted into heat or electricity, generating further environmental and economic benefits!

Now nearing completion, it is anticipated that this three-year applied research project will significantly impact livestock farms across Canada. Dairy producers across the country can look forward to new alternatives for manure disposal that will enhance soil conditions and reduce their burden of storage and removal.

Kerry Doyle, president of Manure Systems Inc. in Abbotsford, is well acquainted with the problems faced by dairy farmers with manure disposal.

“Nutrient segregation and capture is at the forefront of the dairy industry’s concerns across North America, and I am proud to see Canada leading the way towards a solution that will significantly aid dairy farms,” says Doyle. “Technology like this is especially valuable as it addresses both environmental and financial aspects of today’s livestock industry, both saving producer costs and turning this practice into an additional revenue centre on farms.”

Funding: up to $272,500 through former federal adaptation programming provided by IAF and councils in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. (W0112CO)

Okanagan Similkameen Reduces Ag Waste

Some projects are so successful, the benefits keep coming and new projects are born. That’s what’s happening in the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen (RDOS).

Historically, burning was a common orchard removal practice in RDOS. Sadly, wood smoke is one of the most dangerous health hazards in BC.

“Regional districts have the capability and expertise in many areas that can significantly support the farming sector,” remarks Brian Baehr, manager of agriculture environment initiatives at ARDCORP. “The RDOS is a leader in responding to the service needs of agriculture at a local government level.”

In 2006, the RDOS took measures to reduce farm burning by developing an on-farm chipping program and waiving the tipping fees at the landfill for properly prepared agricultural waste.

In implementing these programs, two opportunities emerged to benefit both agriculture and the environment: 1) using wood chips as mulch to improve the soil and 2) improving recycling options for farmers.

In 2007, with funding from IAF through the Agriculture Environment Stewardship Initiative, comprehensive guides highlighting best management practice for wood waste disposal and recycling of agricultural plastics made a significant impact on agricultural practices in the region.

“With the funding from IAF, we were able to reduce both smoke pollution and waste going to the landfill substantially in a remarkably short period of time,” observes Allan Patton, a farmer and RDOS director for electoral area “C” (rural Oliver).

In 2010, with funding from the Agriculture Environment and Wildlife Fund, RDOS further updated the guides, complementing them with extension and educational materials to expand the program even more.

Ten minute film clips covering all of the material were developed and made available in both English and Punjabi.  Presentations were made at grower meetings and guides were widely distributed at local agribusinesses and government offices.

“When additional opportunities were identified, growers were more than willing to participate,” notes Janice Johnson, owner of A Foot Step Closer, consultant on these projects and former air quality coordinator with RDOS. “These projects not only strengthen agriculture, but they also improve air quality, soil health and water for our entire region. “

For more information visit: www.rdos.bc.ca

Funding: $30,000 provided through the Agri-Food Futures Fund. (AEWF 10-005, 006, 013)

Improving Irrigation Uniformity

With no hands up, they knew something needed to be done.

At the August 2009 Cranberry field day, cranberry growers learned about the importance of irrigation uniformity from consultant Steve McCoon of Nelson Irrigation in Walla Walla, Washginton. During the presentation, he asked for a show of hands on how many growers had ever checked their irrigation system for uniformity or measured their sprinkler nozzles for wear.

Cranberry growers rely on irrigation more than most other farmers in BC. Utilized as a distribution mechanism to control pests and diseases, irrigation is also a frost protection tool.

Noting little response to the US expert, the BC Cranberry Marketing Commission asked Mike Wallis P.Ag to lead a survey of irrigation systems on a variety of cranberry fields in BC to not only describe the types of systems used and their age, but also to test for irrigation uniformity and measure nozzles for wear.

Twelve different cranberry farms, representing a diverse range of irrigation systems, were surveyed in Pitt Meadows, Langley, Richmond, Delta and Vancouver Island, The age of the irrigation systems varied from nearly new to 20 years old and field sizes ranged from 2 to 20 acres. Catch cans were used to measure uniformity and a pressure gauge fitted with a pita tube was used to measure sprinkler nozzle pressure.

“We were very encouraged to observe that 86% of the farms surveyed were designed with tail water recovery. This increases the farm’s water use efficiency and reduces their environmental footprint.” observed Wallis. “However, 28% of the survey group water distribution systems required attention to bring uniformity levels to recommended guidelines, so we have some room for improvement.”

Cranberry farmers use the services of certified irrigation designers to design solid set irrigation systems that have a high coefficient of uniformity. The key to keeping that uniformity relies on regular inspection and maintenance. By performing two additional simple, non-technical tests, growers can retain or even improve the performance of their irrigation systems.

“Checking distribution and measuring nozzles is part of our routine now,“ notes grower Allen May of Columbia Cranberry in Richmond, BC. “This project was a real eye opener.”

Funding: $7,805 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Nets framework. (S0002)

Natural Option for Starling Control

BC blueberry growers lose millions of dollars each year to starling damage. These prolific and invasive birds descend on berry fields to eat the ripe fruit, causing significant damage.

Noisemakers, nets, trapping, and chemicals are tools in the arsenal of the blueberry grower for starling control, but often these solutions are incomplete, costly, and controversial.

Karen Steensma, biologist, farmer, and professor at Trinity Western University, is working with farmers in BC and Washington State to re-build kestrel populations in agricultural areas, and assess their potential as a natural deterrent to starlings and other pest birds.

Kestrels are the smallest falcon in North America, and the only native birds of prey that will adopt a nest box. They inhabit open fields or forest edges, and feed on insects, rodents and small birds. The small raptors are fiercely territorial, and have shown promise as effective competitors against starlings in some US cherry orchards. Once kestrels are established, a single nesting pair may protect up to 10 acres.

The project started by putting up over 100 nest boxes adjoining blueberry fields in the Fraser Valley, and Whatcom and Skagit Counties, but it was clear that just providing boxes wasn’t enough.

“In working with biologists, falconers, farmers and scientists on both sides of border, we found that the background populations in this region were so low that it would take years before we could get a good level of occupancy,” says Steensma.

To start building the population up, they imported young orphaned birds from other parts of the US. Steensma and her team have released 21 kestrels south of the border since 2008, and now the birds are starting to use nest boxes in those areas.

The study has also mapped land-use patterns for the region to determine where kestrels are most likely to succeed.

“The birds need habitat to nest, as well as ways to make a living – to obtain food,” says Steensma. “The young kestrels practice on flies, bees and dragonflies. That’s part of their diet. Having small rodents in the grass and the insects present, all of that makes it likely they will nest.”

Funding: $8,000 through the Agri-Food Futures Fund. (AEWF 09-023)

Exploring Agri-Energy Opportunities

Some projects have a reach that goes far beyond the agriculture sector. Reducing greenhouse gases and increasing BC’s production of renewable energy is important to all British Columbians.

That’s why two of BC’s largest utility companies recently supported a study of anaerobic digestion feasibility.

Anaerobic digestion converts agriculture waste to electricity, reducing pathogens and odour by more than 90 per cent.

It even destroys weed seeds and produces a co-product that can be used for animal bedding.

The study – funded by IAF, BC Hydro, Terasen Gas and BC farmers – focused on the viability of anaerobic digesters at various agricultural operations in BC, including nine dairy farms, two beef cattle feedlots and hog operation.

“The BC agriculture sector has tremendous enthusiasm for this technology,” notes Matthew Dickson, the program manager for renewable agri-energy at ARDCorp. “We had 21 applications, but had to limit the number of feasibility studies to 12. The participating farms and feedlots each contributed $5,000 to the project.”

The main output of anaerobic digestion is biogas, a combustible gas that can be used to produce electricity or can be upgraded to bioethane, a substitute for natural gas. As expected, the study concluded that the technology is not economically feasible based on market rates for the electricity and natural gas.

Premium rates must be guaranteed in order for farmers to break even on their investment costs. However, there is definitely an interest in renewable energy, even at higher rates.

“BC Hydro and Terasen will use this data to not only determine the scale of agriculture operations they should be recruiting, but also the feed-in-tariff farmers will require,” observes Dickson. “Similarly, farmers can use this data to help benchmark the feasibility of anaerobic digestion on their own operations.”

“Because of this study, we have decided to go through with building an anaerobic digester,” states program participant and Delta dairy farmer Jerry Keulen. “It just makes sense to harness the waste from our farm.”

Funding: $85,659 through the federal Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program. (A0637)

The Pest is History in BC Nurseries

In 2004, the BC nursery industry was severely impacted when a plant disease called Phytophthora ramorum (or Sudden Oak Death) was found in plants shipped into BC, causing losses and costs of more than $14 million.

Consequently, the national Clean Plants domestic phytosanitary certification program was developed by the nursery industry to help growers minimize the risk of importing or moving pests throughout the supply chain.

The Clean Plants program includes best management practices to improve pest control and enhance traceability. Plants are inspected and documented at various stages, reducing the risk of moving contaminated plants. Should an outbreak occur, the source can be quickly identified and actions taken to limit further spread.

While becoming certified can be a crucial step in ensuring the safety and sustainability of a nursery, completing the process can be somewhat daunting for growers.

With IAF funding, the association has been helping BC nurseries to transition to the Clean Plants program through a series of workshops and individual assistance in completing nursery manuals and preparing for company audits.

As a result, nearly 60 per cent of BC nurseries have completed the process.

Hedy Dyck, the BCLNA’s nursery industry analyst, believes that without the assistance, growers would have dropped the program.

“More markets will specify Clean Plants certified stock to minimize their own risk of regulatory action,” Dyck explains. “This is insurance for growers and an extra marketing advantage to show their customers they’ve done their part to prevent the spread of pests and disease.”

Tamara Mathies, pest manager for Cannor Nursery in Chilliwack, is one of the growers resting a little easier these days. Having previously experienced a P. Ramorum incident, she is well aware of the importance of proactive pest management practices.

“Traceability is crucial in a nursery,” Mathies emphasizes. “Knowing where your plants come from will significantly help mitigate a crisis later on.”

Funding: $156,341 provided through the federal Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program. (A0606)

Native Plants Provide Restoration

In 2008, a small wild plant nursery was established by the Lillooet Naturalist Society and the Cayoose Creek Indian Band to provide native plants for a restoration project along the Fraser River.

More than 7,000 plants later, the nursery has bloomed into a potentially significant commercial and cultural enterprise for the Cayoose Creek band.

With help from IAF, that potential is being explored through the preparation of an economic business and marketing plan for commercializing the existing nursery and restoration services, and evaluating the potential of value-added products for market.

Along the way, the project has not only engaged elders and youth through training and mentoring activities, but is providing employment to the local community, encouraging healthy eating habits and fostering economic growth…all while restoring traditional lands to original ecosystems for the benefit of wildlife.

As if that weren’t enough, the nursery was also selected for the BC Landscape and Nursery Association’s 2011 Stewardship Award.

Cayoose Creek band member Karen Edwards has been working at the restoration site and nursery for the past four years, and is excited to see the benefits unfolding for her community.

“We’re providing an accessible site where all generations can come together and learn,” Edwards says. “This is helping to keep our traditions alive.”

While the work has primarily been focused in the St’at’imc traditional territories, members from surrounding bands and interested Lillooet community members are able to participate in workshops and volunteer activities. It is also anticipated that many of the skills and products developed could be adapted to similar landscapes within the Thompson/Okanagan region.

Funding: up to $62,912 provided through the Agri-Food Futures Fund, Emerging Sectors Initiative. (A0647 ES)

A Safe Solution for Slaughter Waste

They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but BC’s slaughter waste composting facilities are proving that you can make a sow’s ear into safe, high quality compost.

The final report from a project led by the BC Association of Abattoirs concludes that compost produced at all six of BC’s small-scale slaughter waste composting facilities are producing compost that meets the Ministry of Environment’s Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR) Class A standard.

The project provided technical support and OMRR compliance training for operators of BC slaughter waste composting facilities.

It also included sampling and testing the compost for pathogen levels, the carbon to nitrogen ratio and trace element composition.

In the end, 101 of the 113 samples tested had non-detectable levels of pathogens, ten samples contained low levels of fecal coliform that were within the Class A standard, and the two samples that exceeded the Class A standard were contaminated from external sources.

“The pathogen results were far and above what I expected to find,” says Ruth MacDougall, the agrologist who conducted the study. “I expected to find instances where it would not meet our provincial Class A standards, and I didn’t.”

Regulations introduced following the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada put pressure on small abattoirs to find viable solutions for the disposal of waste tissues instead of paying to have it hauled to Alberta.

In BC, six facilities have been developed to process non-specified risk material waste from slaughterhouses.

“Having these facilities gives people who are remote and don’t have other disposal options a way to deal with [slaughter waste] onsite,” says McDougall. “It offers them a solution for most of their waste. Instead of just landfilling it, they are turning it into a useful, beneficial product.”

The value of composting goes beyond environmental sustainability for some operators.

“Composting has kept us in business,” says Dennis Gunter of Gunter Brothers Meat Company in Courtenay, one of the facilities that participated in the project.

“The difference between what we were paying [to have the waste hauled away] and what we pay to compost is more than our bottom line.”

Public concern about the safety of the compost facilities has surrounded the industry since the beginning, but operators lacked the research and data to support their case. This project not only provides the scientific data to support composting, it has helped operators improve their skills and understanding of what is required to produce compost that makes the grade.

“I hope it provides the public with some measure of confidence that these facilities are safe and run well, and are producing high quality compost that is safe for distribution,” says McDougall.

Funding: $41,434 provided through the Livestock Waste Tissue Initiative. (LWTI059)