Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Canada Geese - predator of grass

     "The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance. Sometimes the balance is in his favour; sometimes – and all too often – it is shifted to his disadvantage" Rachel Carson in “Silent Spring”

     Canada geese are a truly beautiful, majestic bird known for their annual migrations marked in the fall and spring by the “V” formations in the sky. Prior to the 1960’s Canada geese sightings were rare treats and Canada geese did not spend their winters here, but now they are commonly seen year round, and are more numerous each year. According to a recent evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canada goose population in North America has risen fivefold since 1970, primarily due to a 15-fold increase in the number of geese living in urban areas. The resident non-migratory geese made up 18 per cent of the North American total in 1970; now they account for 67 per cent. So what has happened?
     Since the early ‘70’s Canada geese numbers have been increasing significantly due to a perfect storm of events. A successful conservation program was launched across North America in the 1960’s by various wildlife agencies to restore numbers of geese reduced through years of hunting and habitat loss. The program was also intended to boost Canada geese numbers for recreational hunting purposes. In Canada there are 11 subspecies of Canada goose and eight of these live in B. C., but the two subspecies that were introduced through this program were resident, or non-migratory, geese not common to this area. The parallel increase in growth of urban and suburban communities with manicured lawns, golf courses and airports and lovely ponds made for the perfect Canada goose habitat. When we add restrictive hunting and firearm regulations and a lack of predators we have created the perfect storm of events.
     The incredible crash of a passenger airliner into the Hudson River of New York recently was caused by such a group of resident Canada geese. The number of Canada goose-aircraft collisions in North America quadrupled between 1990 and 1998, and that trend continues.
     Farmers have noticed the effects of the Canada geese, also. Forage producers watch as hay and grain fields are demolished in a feeding frenzy by these foragers, which consume up to 4 lbs of grass each day, depositing 2-3 lbs of fecal material. Last year we planted two fields with oats and millet, and watched as hundreds of Canada geese ate the crop while it was trying to grow. I finally gave up and turned the sheep in to compete with the geese, and now we have two bare fields ready to plant again this year. The ground next to the ponds is especially lacking in vegetation, and the ground is compressed. This is only compounded by the fact that the federal government has been encouraging farmers over the past few years to dig more ponds.
Pender Island Golf Course in December with some resident Canada Geese on putting green enjoying sun
     Now, some might suggest that golf course managers might think a bit about working with these lawn mowers with wings, since they produce fertilizer and keep the grounds manicured. But they are in fact viewed as an unappealing nuisance since the fertilizer tends to be slippery underfoot and muck up the golf balls. One cold day while driving by our golf course I counted over 125 Canada geese, not much less than this years Christmas bird count of 148. In fact this year’s count was much less than the record breaking 466 of 2007, according to Gerald McKeating, a bird specialist who lives on Pender and is retired from many years with the Canadian Wildlife Service. This was probably due to the harsh weather that kept birds hanging out at the beach on count day. In fact McKeating said he saw at least 300 on the golf course just a few days earlier.
     There are also public health concerns since Canada geese can contribute to Giardia, Cryptosporidium and Campylobacter outbreaks. It has been reported that communities with increased resident Canada geese populations also have increased rat populations, because rats like to eat the eggs and the young.
     So what can we do? Increasing populations of Canada geese have prompted several communities to control resident flocks. In the 1970s, the wildlife service began to issue permits to property owners whose crops were being ravaged by foraging Canada geese.   In 2007, Kelowna and Osoyoos applied for wildlife service permits to reduce goose numbers through egg addling (shaking), habitat modification and scare techniques.
     With resident Canada geese populations growing at a rate of 12% per year, doubling in numbers every 4-5 years, we had best be thinking about what we should do. Perhaps the Capital Regional District, like other Regional Districts, should also apply for wildlife service permits for our community.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Independent Farmer

"CULTIVATORS of the earth are the most valuable citizens," Thomas Jefferson
I was going to start out the first Farm Stand column on the independent farmer, in honour of this new newspaper the Islands Independent. With all the inherent risks to farming, including the weather, regulations, input costs, processing problems, disease outbreaks and globalization and the liberalization of trade, it is still a great way to live – but a hard way to make a living. Most farmers need another job to support this habit. Many things have changed on Pender Island – and in the world – over the last 100+ years. The voters list from the 1800’s listed all the Pender Island residents as farmers. Now, there would be 1% or less described as a farmer. Even so, farming still exists here. In the old days grain was grown and fruit, dairy and meat were shipped off island by boat since Pender was on the shipping route. Now, most of the products produced here are consumed here. The exceptions might be wine and lamb, premium products because they come from the Gulf Islands. On Pender and in other communities there has been a shift toward direct marketing through Farmers’ Markets and away from commodity markets where farmers are price takers, not price makers. Still, unless you are either small scale or close to a large population, you are subject to a lot of things out of your control. For example, the outbreak of BSE (mad cow disease) in Canada resulted in plummeting prices for all ruminants. Beef and sheep were major sources of farm income at the time on Pender, and many producers decided to direct market their meat to the public. Then, just as quickly, the government decided to invoke new meat regulations that would force all livestock to be shipped off-island to government inspected slaughterhouses. Now we must truck long distances or ship at low prices. Not a rosy picture and I anticipate most cattle will be gone from Pender in the next 5 years. We may see the same with lamb, as processing options become fewer.

But where doors close, others open. We already know that olives, figs and grapes thrive here in our Mediterranean climate. Vineyards have been popping up, a winery already here can provide processing and marketing. Perhaps fruit growers can work a similar situation out. The olive grove on MacKinnon Road and the fig orchard in the Grimmer Valley are perhaps another step in our farming evolution on Pender. An independent, resilient and resourceful spirit is at the heart of the farmer.


Farming seems mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles away from the cornfield”

Dwight Eisenhower

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gulf Island Farmers Profiled in Western Producer

A few weeks ago Barbara Duckworth, the Calgary-based reporter of Western Producer, contacted Island Farmers Alliance to arrange for some farms on the islands to visit. I arranged visits with three farms and one cooperative group that typify the unique style of Gulf Island agriculture. Western Producer is a well known newspaper in farming circles and is read by 57,000 farm families each week. Each of the latest four issues profiled one of the farm operations, emphasizing the unique island climate and culture that encourages a break from traditional agricultural methods.
The Olive Consortium on Saturna Island is a group of individuals who were inspired by Pender Islander Andrew Butt to encourage the growing of olive trees in the Gulf Islands. They imported 180 trees last year and 500 this year, and are hopeful that the varieties selected will thrive in our Mediterranean-like climate. Olive trees compliment vineyards, but require milder winters so would not grow everywhere grapes grow. The Gulf Islands are perhaps the only place in Canada that the trees will grow and produce. There has been a lot of interest from different islands so far. The Olive Consortium is Michael Pierce and his wife Juliet Kershaw, Mark Timmer, Charlie Burlem and his wife Nettie Adams.
Jacques Campbell of Saturna Island was also profiled in a separate issue. Campbell Farm, started by her dad Jim and mom Lorraine, is known for having one of the few licenced slaughter facilities on the Gulf Islands. It was upgraded to meet the new provincial meat regulations, and serves the farm community of Saturna Island and also some on outer islands (our farm included). This facility is an important component that makes the annual July 1st Lamb Barbeque possible. The Lamb Barbeque is a tourist destination and celebration of Canada Day, with traditionally prepared barbequed lamb and entertainment. The Saturna Lamb Barbeque began as a school picnic in 1950 on the Campbell's farm at Saturna Beach and is now held at Winter Cove. It is the main fund raising activity of the Saturna Community Club, an organization that funds activities and services such as health care, ambulance, library, a singing group, groundwater protection, children's Christmas party, and school-end festivities.
Both Cambell Farm and the Olive Consortium are part of 31 Square Saturna Eats, a group that promotes and shares food among the 31 square kilometres of Saturna Island which is home to 350 people.
Besides raising sheep and beef and producing good grass for pasture and hay, this year Jacques is also involved in a research project with the Canadian Sheep Federation. Campbell Farm is one of two farms in BC participating in a study to evaluate radio frequency identification tags (RFID) as a traceability and management tool for producers. For the trial, Jacques is testing an electronic wireless scale head and tag reader and two types of RFID tags to evaluate the tag system. And if that wasn't enough, Campbell Farm is also going to host an Inter Island Sheep Breeders Association field day on July 24th, and will give a tour of the farm and abattoir and a demonstration of the RFID system. Sheep producers are encouraged to attend and can either contact myself at (or 250-629-3817, or 3819) or Jacques' sister Nan at or the farm at 250-539-2470.
Two of the Western Producer visits were to Salt Spring Island farms. Harry Burton is known as the farmer behind the Apple Festival on Salt Spring Island each fall. Harry, along with other apple producers on the island, host an event elevating and celebrating the apple, taking the production of apples a step away from just another commodity. Thousands of visitors attend each year. Harry nurtures 200 varieties of apples on his small acreage and is a self-described “appleholic”. Apple Lucious Organic Orchard is also home to plums, grapes, plum-cots, and apricots.
Margaret Thomson of Windrush Farm was also profiled in Western Producer. Margaret is the co-author of the recent Salt Spring livestock report and represents the livestock producers on Salt Spring who are working to bring a mobile abattoir to the island. She also raises rare breed Cotswold sheep and heritage turkeys and is very involved in more than one farm organization, including Rare Breeds Canada.
Each of these four profiled food producers represent the type of agriculture on our islands that takes into account our unique climate and culture. Each is community based, but also embraces the potential to introduce the visitor to agriculture, Gulf Island style.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Farmers Get Attention

“We can't solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
Albert Einstein
(quoted in the BC Agriculture Council report to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture for its study on Young Farmers and the Future of Farming)

In the 2006 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in Canada increased from 49.9 in 2001, to 52 in 2006. This was accompanied by a decline in farmers 35 years and younger from 11.5% to 9.1%. Farmers over 55 increased in that period from 34.9% to 40.7%, In the outer Gulf Islands (Mayne, Penders, Saturna, Galiano) there are 135 farmers, with an average age of 57.1 (The average Gulf Islander is 56.8). This is slightly greater than the CRD at 55.3, Vancouver Island at 54.6, and BC at 53.6 (population average age in BC is 40). So what does this mean?
I often see it stated that farmers are getting older, and that fewer young people are getting into farming. This brief statement often goes without any further explanation, but the popular press will often stress that we must find ways to get young people farming. Sometimes it is suggested that they just need access to land.
Farming publications paint a different picture. It is not as simple as just the cost of land. Farmers are well aware of the complex issues behind the statistics. More older people continue to farm, and more younger people are discouraged from farming; increasing uncertainty, declining farm incomes, escalating input costs and cost of living, capital costs of land, equipment are just some of the challenges. In BC, there was an unprecedented three consecutive years of negative net farm incomes from 2006-2008. For a kid on the farm, the talk around the dinner table can often revolve around farming and its challenges. To make ends meet sacrifices are made, and realities are often different from the romantic images of farming that the public may have. In many cases, the next generation would very much like to take over the family farm, but are encouraged to get further education in something other than agriculture so they can either have a good off-farm job to support them in the tough times, or to leave the farm altogether.
In the supply managed sectors of dairy and poultry the story is different and young people are taking over the family farm with much more optimism. This is because the system is designed to give a fair return for their product. In some farm sectors, like beef and tree fruits, there have recently been discussions of going to a supply manged system that would ensure a fair price to farmers. This fall apple producers were getting twelve cents per pound for apples, and yet they were sold retail for much more. Cattle prices have not recovered enough to keep farms afloat, and just last week one more farm on our island sold the last of their cows. Direct marketing is an option for some, and cooperatives have also been revived to help with marketing. It's a lot for a young person to step into, and like any business they need to do their homework. Despite the hurdles, young people do enter agriculture and can achieve success. A successful farmer will learn abut agriculture, business, marketing through further education, networking with other farmers, and experience. Some young people in the Gulf Islands – from long time family farms, and some new to farming, have eased into their own styles of farming.
As for the increase in ageing farmers, the average age of a farmer has always been higher because of the nature of the work and the lifestyle. The number of older farmers have increased with increasing lifespans and technology that reduce hard labour. Farmers often view retirement as the first nail in the coffin, and as long as they are able to work and enjoy the work, they will continue to farm. Many farmers have also said that passing on a viable farm is important to them, and someone has to be willing to take it on when the time is right.
In response to a lack of a young farmer community, and to encourage young farmers, the BC Agriculture Council started the BC Young Farmers in 2008. Their motto is “keeping farming alive with the next generation”. They offer business training, communications to their members, leadership and human resources training, and networking. Of the 200 members, a majority do not own farms, and begin farming by leasing land and gaining experience. Steve Thomson, the BC Minister of Agriculture and the Chair of the BC Agriculture Council at the time of the formation of the BC Young Farmers, stated that young people will enter farming when agriculture is viable and thriving.
The federal government has also taken notice of the need for more young farmers. In November 2009, the Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of State for Agriculture, hosted roundtable discussions across Canada with young agriculture students and farmers to better understand the challenges and opportunities they face with respect to starting and transferring farms. In April and May of 2010 the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food went across Canada as part of its study on Young Farmers and the Future of Farming. Although many different points of view were expressed, the common theme was one of farm viability being critical to the future of farming in Canada. Hopefully as we reach a critical point the federal government will have an action plan that can address concerns at the root of the problem.