Simplifying Organic Certification

An innovative, province-wide online tool is now available for producers seeking organic certification! Thanks to a project led by the Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC), the once onerous application process has been radically streamlined to save operators time, paperwork and money.

According to Jen Gamble, executive director of the COABC, the online system fills two sizable gaps for the province’s organic sector.

“Previously there were no certification bodies in BC that offered a live online application process,” explains Gamble, adding that the information captured will also populate a database to supply better statistics, another first in BC.

While data on the organic sector is in high demand, it is difficult to access and has never been consistent or reliable.

“Now with accurate numbers we are better positioned to identify gaps and predict potential areas for growth,” anticipates Gamble. “We are already seeing the capability of the system to provide concrete information in the long term.”

And with BC’s mandatory organic regulation taking effect, the project proved especially timely for the many producers and processors now required to verify their products have accredited organic certification.

For the COABC, ensuring that the increasing numbers of transitional organic operators can access a supportive and user-friendly platform was a top priority, especially given the unfamiliarity and discomfort many farmers feel with online navigation.

To address the technology challenge and ease the transition, the COABC developed user guides and supplementary how-to videos to assist new entrants and have also trained their own staff to offer tech support via phone and email. And to ensure users without access to internet or computers are not excluded, certifying bodies will continue to offer a non-digital alternative until applicants are familiar with the new tool. (For those who simply need to renew their certification, Gamble promises the initial data recorded will re-populate in subsequent years to considerably expedite the renewal process.)

So far feedback from stakeholders across the sector has been largely positive, and the COABC continues to offer training sessions when necessary to ensure a smooth transition for those coming onboard.

In addition to simplifying the application process and enhancing data collection, Gamble is delighted to see numerous other benefits unfolding because of the project, including increased collaboration and communication within the sector and a clearer understanding of the role and benefits the COABC brings to the sector.  

“As we shift into a high-tech future, tools like this are vital to the success and sustainability of the organic sector, and we are confident the system will see widespread adoption and sustained use,” she predicts.

Funding: $117,568 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (A0818)

TKS Rubber Bounces Back

Vital to all economies and infinitely useful, natural rubber boasts a backstory far more compelling than its pragmatic nature suggests. Discovered in the 1930s in Central Asia, Taraxacum kok-saghyz (TKS) became an important industrial rubber-producing plant, also known as “Russian dandelion.” When cost- effective rubber supplies from Southeast Asia were cut off by the Japanese invasion during World War II, Canadian production of TKS proved indispensable for meeting both medical and military needs during the critical embargo.

While TKS fell into disuse when Hevea rubber became available again after the war, an interest in reviving local production has resurfaced in recent years, fueled by rising rubber costs and latex allergies. One company in Surrey saw an unparalleled opportunity for British Columbia farmers.

After researching the growing conditions and market demand for natural rubber, Nova-BioRubber Green Technologies undertook a series of trials for producing and processing TKS at a commercial scale on several BC farms, in both greenhouses and raised beds.

“TKS offers the potential for a new summer and winter cash crop for BC farms, particularly those that are underutilized and unprofitable,” explains Nova-BioRubber founder Dr. Anvar Buranov, adding that thousands of new jobs in both primary production and processing are anticipated as a result.  

After completing a three-year project funded by the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program, Dr. Buranov and his team have successfully demonstrated that TKS can be grown annually in BC, with crop values of up to $16,000 per hectare!

“Agricultural practices can also be completely mechanized to decrease growing costs,” promises Dr. Buranov, estimating about $100 per acre.

With their new green processing facility, Nova-BioRubber can accommodate an annual production of 100 tons of rubber and 100 tons of inulin, the main TKS by-product that offers a valuable dietary fiber to the food processing and pharmaceutical industries.

And with the price of rubber continuously increasing over the past 20 years, many industries have displayed a heightened interest in alternative sources of natural rubber. While scientists have studied alternatives like Guayule, its product has never reached the market due to its low rubber content, difficult extraction process and three-year growth cycle.

TKS by contrast, offers a steady supply with reliably high rubber and inulin contents (24 and 40 percent respectively), and only takes four months to grow in BC’s climate. Thanks to the harvesting and processing technologies developed by Nova Bio-Rubber, the extraction process is green, simple and affordable.

“Compared to previous methods, our technology offers close to a 50 percent reduction in energy consumption, 80 percent reduction in labour, 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 90 percent reduction in water consumption and 100 percent reduction in toxic chemical consumption,” reports Dr. Buranov, noting that processing time is also 600 percent faster and costs approximately $1 per kilogram of rubber, lower than any known technology.

A TKS production guide is now available to growers in the Lower Mainland and Northwest Coast, featuring climate-specific best practices.

With roughly three million hectares of marginal lands available in BC, Dr. Buranov is confident farmers can meet the growing demand for natural rubber without compromising local food production.

“This may even provide a new industry in rural areas of BC,” he adds hopefully.

Funding: $295,000 provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through Growing Forward 2, a former federal-provincial-territorial initiative. (INN239)

New Ag Plan Offers Reason To Hope

When the Hope Food Collective undertook a Community Food Security Assessment in 2016, there was a clear and consistent message from residents seeking more local options with more control over the source and quality of their food.

Unfortunately, with its surplus of under-utilized agricultural land and lack of supportive policies, the District of Hope had a long way to go to meet these expectations. So, with the help of IAF’s Agricultural Area Planning Program, the District formed an Agricultural Advisory Committee and began the process to strengthen and promote its local food system.

And with recent endorsement by City Council, the new Hope Food and Agriculture Plan now offers a ten-to 15-year blueprint for guiding the long-term development of agri-food systems in Hope!

According to project manager Brittany Ekelund, the plan reflects extensive consultation and presents a shared vision to support both new and existing agri-businesses and enhance food security for everyone.

“The plan is a long-range strategy for increasing the use of agricultural land for farming as well as establishing and scaling-up the local food and agriculture value chain,” says Ekelund. “The plan takes a food system approach and considers all aspects of the value chain from production, processing and direct-sales to celebration and food recovery.”

Priorities captured in the ambitious new plan include maintaining Agricultural Land Reserve boundaries and discouraging subdivision, expanding processing infrastructure, establishing a regional food hub, encouraging ecologically responsible agriculture practices and creating a branding strategy for Hope food and agriculture.

The regional branding initiative is already underway, offering logos and other marketing materials to government, business and education sectors. With access to new tools, Hope producers and processors can more easily tap into larger regional markets, fulfilling another key priority identified during consultations.

“During the 2016 assessment, local producers expressed a need for a consistent, viable market for their products, so we really wanted our plan to offer specific avenues for improving marketing opportunities,” explains Ekelund, adding that they are also focused on creating a more supportive and inclusive farmers’ market.

For Ekelund, increasing collaboration, communication and educational opportunities is the most important path forward in building a strong and sustainable industry, especially when it comes to recruiting new talent to the local ag sector.

“Hope offers an appealing option for innovative, young or new agriculturalists interested in small-scale agriculture,” she says. They can take advantage of our current low cost of agricultural land relative to the Lower Mainland, location for easy distribution and excellent water quality and soil health.”

And for added incentive, the District hopes to host a workshop series for farmers, processors and artisans to learn practical business skills and is also exploring ways to help producers navigate government regulations and permitting requirements to responsibly grow their operations.

“We’re trying to build a network of farmers that can work together to support each other, pool resources, develop products and expand market share for the benefit of the entire community,” Ekelund emphasizes.

Funding: $13,000 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (B0016.47)

Hoof Health Pilot Paves Way for Dairy Cattle Welfare

As any dairy farmer knows, lameness is the most economically significant herd health and animal welfare issue facing producers. What is often less obvious is that hoof lesions are the culprit behind over 95 percent of lameness cases.

According to Trevor Hargreaves, Director of Producer Relations and Communications with the BC Dairy Association (BCDA), the lack of industry awareness has long contributed to this persistent problem.

“Lameness is commonly underestimated on dairy farms,” he explains. “A recent study on Alberta dairy herds revealed that while farmers estimate an eight percent proportion of lameness, the actual rate was confirmed to be closer to 20 percent.”

After a similar assessment on 75 BC dairies revealed the majority were substantially affected by lameness, the BCDA decided to introduce the industry to the ‘Dutch 5-Step Method of Hoof Trimming,’ an internationally recognized technique that requires specialized training and on-going support.

For Trevor and other stakeholders, the pilot was critical to filling the gap of in-depth courses available in BC.

“Despite many years of practical experience, BC’s professional hoof trimmers do not have a certification program in place to ensure a high level of consistency in the way they trim hooves,” says Trevor, citing the wide variations in technical knowledge and expertise in hoof lesion identification, trimming techniques and competence levels even amongst professional trimmers.

Thanks to federal and provincial funding, the BCDA was able to offer a series of hoof trimming clinics led by the Western Canadian Certified Hoof Trimmers Association to almost 70 dairy producers and farm employees throughout BC.

In addition to learning to correctly identify infectious and non-infectious claw lesions and risk factors, participants like Bruce Froese received hands-on training to trim and balance a cadaver foot as well as instruction on trimming tools and restraint systems available to safely trim feet.

As a result, Bruce was able to obtain his Certification for Hoof Trimming Proficiency, recognized worldwide, and now offers a new level of assurance to his customers at Greenleaf Hoof Care in Chilliwack.

“Improving the health, recovery and longevity of the herd very quickly covers the relatively minor costs of training and equipment investment on farm,” promises Bruce.

Course reviews from other participants were similarly positive, affirming greater confidence with both the theoretical and technical knowledge required to detect, treat and prevent lameness.

As industry adoption of the Dutch method grows and cases of hoof lesions and lameness begin to decline, Trevor expects the benefits to herd health and profitability will help shift the entire industry closer to its long-term goals.

“This is the first step in moving BC hoof trimmers towards a standardized system and elevating the competency level of trimmers province-wide,” he asserts, noting that animal welfare is one of six management pillars of the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s new proAction Initiative.

Funding: $7,273 provided through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (A0838)

Special thanks to Tom Droppo, Dairy Industry Specialist with the BC Ministry of Agriculture for his tireless oversight and support of this project.

Blueberry Growers Defend Biodiversity

Indigenous to the Fraser Valley, Western Barn Owls can be a berry grower’s best friend, patrolling farm fields at night for voles and other unwelcome visitors. By weight, these owls consume more rodents than most other predators, making them one of the most economically valuable wildlife animals for agriculture.

In recent years however, these predatory powerhouses have faced mounting pressures such as habitat loss and secondary poisoning from consuming pests with rodenticide in their systems.

In an effort to lift the owls from the threatened species list, the Fraser Basin Council Society (FBCS) teamed with local Abbotsford growers to explore an integrated pest management approach (IPM) that would reduce rodenticide use and provide habitat and nesting sites to host western barn owls.

According to project manager Christina Toth, part of the problem for farmers was a lack of clarity on rodenticide application levels.

“By educating producers on the correct and appropriate application to protect their crops, they can not only save time, money and labour, but help protect biodiversity in the Fraser Valley,” Toth explains, adding that the benefits extend beyond owls to other predatory raptors and mammals potentially affected by rodenticide use.

Fact sheets in both English and Punjabi are now available to growers, offering best practices for rodenticide use, as well as tips on how to assess vole presence and damage to crops and how to develop more effective, economical and environmentally sustainable IPM plans.

So far 11 blueberry farms have implemented best management practices for rodenticide use and installed barn owl nest boxes to help control voles.

Toth sees the project as a ground-breaking initiative, both in terms of farm management and environmental stewardship.

“We’ve had amazing response from both conventional and organic growers eager for information that will help them enhance the relationship between agriculture and the environment,” she says.

Given that BC is one of the largest highbush blueberry-growing regions in the world, the project was especially timely.

Parm Bains, who grows both conventional and organic blueberries at Westberry Farms in Abbotsford, is relieved a new approach for pest control is available after having long struggled with the vole problem.

“In the last ten years especially,” he describes, “we’ve seen the problem getting worse and worse—in conventional fields, we’re having to use rodenticides far more frequently, which of course carries both environmental and economic impacts.”

With new barn owl nest boxes installed in his fields, Westberry Farms is now part of the growing industry shift that prioritizes sustainability.

And while the focus centered mostly on blueberry growers, the resources developed through the project are applicable to other agricultural sectors, including vegetable and tree fruit growers, viticulture, nurseries and the newly expanding small grains and hops sectors.

Fact sheets and information on nest boxes are available to growers through the BC Blueberry Council website and its new smartphone app.

Funding: $20,000 through the former federal-provincial Safety Net Fund. (A0814AE)