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)

Bye Bye Birdy

For fruit growers across the globe, birds are a common bane, particularly for those seeking a quiet, humane and cost-effective mitigation strategy. Starlings are especially unsavory interlopers as they not only spread disease but often destroy an entire crop, forcing growers to walk away and leave everything on the tree.

Fortunately for BC growers, Coral Beach Farms decided that a new solution was needed—or at least new to BC. With funding from the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program delivered through IAF’s Agri-Food Environment Initiative, Coral Beach became the first grower in the province to test the Agrilaser Autonomic Program at its Lake Country orchard.

Recently launched in The Netherlands, the Agrilaser has been successfully used in European orchards and offers a host of benefits according to Coral Beach Hort Manager, Gayle Krahn.

“The Agrilaser is clean, silent and safe for humans, birds and the environment,” explains Krahn, who ran the two-year trial that investigated bird activity and damage in both laser-treated and non-laser treated orchards.

While livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens will ignore the laser beam, birds view it as a physical danger and keep their distance.

Configured through remote control and offering a maximum range of 2,000 meters, users can install and control settings from their laptops and are able to define up to ten different areas in which birds are repelled. Coral Beach programmed their laser to sweep just above the trees and only operate during specific times of the day. In less than a minute, the laser covered the 135-acre orchard and led to a dramatic shift in their bird population.

Over time, however, they discovered that while the lasers proved a consistent deterrent on certain species such as starlings and sparrows, crows and magpies eventually became resistant as they adapted to the laser’s pattern. A potential solution is to change the laser’s pattern every two weeks in hopes of continuously confusing the birds and keeping them repelled. Users also have the option to set the laser to change patterns part-way through the day to cause even more confusion.

During the trial Coral Beach also compared the laser to more conventional bird control methods like falconry and noise makers.

“Noise makers are exactly that – they make noise and as a result bother neighbors and the surrounding community,” laments Krahn, adding that birds also tend to get used to the noise and eventually ignore it.

While falconry may work for smaller farmers, the higher number of falconers needed for a larger operation is too costly for most.

For now Coral Beach continues to experiment with broader-based monitoring and programming, adding more Agrilaser units to its other orchards and sharing information with growers (many of whom are reluctant to invest in technology until it has been tested locally).

“We want to make sure we share a solution that will benefit all tree fruit, grape and berry growers,” says Krahn. “I have confidence in the lasers and I think by tweaking the program we can have even greater success.”

Funding: $12,700 committed by the governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program under Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. (INN214AE)

15 Years of Progress in Ag Sustainability

British Columbia’s farmers and ranchers work closely with the land, and their success depends on good stewardship and environmental practices. Identifying environmental impacts and the best practices to manage them requires access to funding for research, program development and evaluation.

Since 2001, the Investment Agriculture Foundation has delivered funding to four major initiatives aimed at addressing environmental and wildlife concerns associated with agriculture:

  • Agriculture Environment Partnership Initiative (AEPI)
  • Agriculture Environment Stewardship Initiative (AESI)
  • Agriculture Environment Wildlife Fund (AEWF)
  • Agriculture Environment Initiate (AEI)
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“A big part of the success of agri-environmental funding is that it supports real solutions to environmental issues, and demonstrates to the public that agriculture is engaged in addressing these problems, not just ignoring them,” says Greg Norton, who farms in the Okanagan and chairs the BCAC agriculture environment committee. Norton has also chaired the industry committee that reviews applications for the past 11 years.

Funded by federal and provincial government contributions delivered through the Investment Agriculture Foundation, these programs have always relied on industry input from a committee of producers representing different commodities and regions of the province.

“A lot of the work that has been funded over the years has launched ideas that have become ongoing industry-supported programs, like the Obsolete Pesticide Program and Starling Control Program, or provided valuable reference information that is still being used by farmers,” he adds.

Over the past 15 years, agri-environmental programs have provided funding to resolve wildlife and environmental issues facing agriculture at local and provincial scales. In total, over $13 million in federal and provincial funding has been invested and 240 projects completed.

Some of the most significant outcomes of the projects have been the partnerships and relationships that have developed. Agricultural producers, associations, environmental groups, private industry, post-secondary institutions, researchers, and all levels of local and provincial government have been involved in this important work.

Not only have projects created connections at operational and community levels, but partners in these projects have stepped up and invested over $18 million in cash contributions, and another $3.62 million of value in-kind. These contributions bring the total value of the projects to an estimated $34.9 million. It is a testament to the value that farmers, producer organizations, community and environmental groups and different levels of government have put on developing solutions to help reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment.

As new risks and challenges emerge, funding like this ensures agriculture is able to respond. Recent projects have included research into new pests like the Spotted-wing Drosophila, addressing water protection in agricultural areas, and engaging the broader agri-food sector in discussions on packaging and waste-management.

“There is a lot of environmental work going on in agriculture right now that is very complimentary, and I think producers win when there’s that kind of linkage,” says Greg Norton, pointing to the Environmental Farm Plan/Beneficial Management Practice Program and the B.C. Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative. “Agriculture today is very aware of the importance of our relationship with the environment.”

A New Dimension for Wildlife Control

Conventional wisdom says good fences make good neighbours. When it comes to protecting winter feed and forage from deer, elk and moose, good fences are good business.

The Peace River Forage Association is adding a new dimension to fencing out ungulates – a third dimension.

Three-dimensional fences are constructed with height, depth and width. The resulting visual effect causes wildlife to approach the fence with caution, and an electrified outer fence provides an incentive for the animals to look elsewhere.

“Ungulates have eyes on the sides of their heads, giving them poor depth perception,” explains Talon Johnson, the project coordinator. “They have to slow down and check it out and get a shock when they touch it with their nose. If you shock an animal on nose or face, you’ll turn them around.”

The association started their research in 2010 working with eight producers in the Peace region. They tried a variety of fence designs and monitored the results over two winters.

They found the optimum dimension for the fences are 56 to 60 inches tall on the inside fence, and an electric wire at 34 inches on the outside fence. The spacing of the fences has a sweet spot of 36 inches – less, and wildlife will jump over both fences; more, and they will jump between the fences.

The critical success factor is being able to maintain the electrical current to the fence throughout the winter.

“We didn’t have heavy snowfall during the years that we put up the fences, but we saw good changes in deer and moose patterns,” says Johnson. “Last year we weren’t officially monitoring them and ended up having insane winter conditions, and there were a lot of failures in the 3-D fences because the electricity failed and the animals weren’t getting a shock.”

A second 3-D fence project is now underway, refining the designs, and expanding the regional reach of the research to include partnerships with producers in Cranbrook and Smithers. Ultimately the goal is to provide guidelines for affordable, easy fencing solutions to farmers to secure their feed and protect their investment.

Funding: $87,850 through the federal-provincial Agriculture and Environment Wildlife Fund. (AEWF 13-002)

Let Your Eco-Conscience Be Your Guide

When it comes to environmental sustainability, being a good steward can be a win-win situation.

An industry that positions itself as a leader in eco-friendliness can also gain a strategic marketing advantage, given the increasing trend of conscientious consumerism.

For the BC wine industry, the Sustainable Winegrowing Program (SWP) is helping to gain this advantage.

The SWP represents an industry-wide commitment to improving the environmental performance of BC wine from vineyard to cellar.

By developing resources like sustainable practice guidebooks and self-assessments, the program is already helping vineyard owners reduce their ecological footprint and improve profits.

With help from IAF, the BC Wine Grape Council is now focusing its efforts on helping wineries by piloting the guidebook and assessment with industry members.

The Council is also working to make the program more accessible by offering on-line delivery of these resources. Using the on-line self-assessment, operators will be able to determine their current level of sustainability, identify areas that require improvement and develop an action plan.

Both the BC wine industry and wine enthusiasts can look forward to premium quality products that support environmental integrity – now that’s worth toasting!

Funding: $28,680 allocated through the former federal-provincial Safety Nets framework and the Agriculture Environment Wildlife Fund. (A0636)