Standing at the window in his kitchen, Fort Fraser, B.C. rancher Wayne Ray watches the heavy grey clouds and he shakes his head. It’s July — haying season — but the rain won’t let him get at it.
Ray is lucky. He hasn’t yet cut his hay yet, so at least it isn’t laying in swaths, rotting with the badly timed precipitation. Yet Ray also knows that every day of waiting means another drop in his forage’s protein and quality, and the long range weather forecast shows the rain is going to continue at least a few days more.
Not so long ago, Ray could expect a fine, dry harvest season with lots of opportunity to bale off a top-quality crop. But there’s a new normal in this part of British Columbia now.
So if you don’t believe in climate change, don’t tell it to this rancher, or to any of his equally frustrated neighbours.
Northern B.C.’s Bulkley-Nechako region is well-known for producing much of Western Canada’s very best quality hay. The roughly 350-square-kilometre region, from Vanderhoof in the southeast to Germansen Landing in the north to Smithers in the west, boasts summertime daylight that stretches 17 hours. The area surrounding Vanderhoof offers the very best arable agricultural land: an ancient glacial lake-bed with rock free, silty clay loam up to 600 feet deep.
Historically, the region has also provided ideal growing conditions for high-protein, high-sugar forages: heavy snowfall in winter provides great spring moisture, and the reliably warm, sunny summer days were always perfect for both growing and harvesting hay.
In the last 15 years, however, the weather has changed drastically. In the eastern part of the Nechako Valley, it’s now significantly wetter than ever before while in Ray’s southwestern part of the valley, it’s now incredibly dry. There have been more than a few years recently as well when the ground freezes long before the snow flies. Without an insulating layer of snow, the barren ground freezes deep and hard, so that when spring finally comes, melting snow runs off the deep frozen ground rather than percolating in. Streams are often full to bursting, while forage fields go into the growing season dry as dust. And it gets worse. Both spring and summer tend to be cooler now than historical norms, and precipitation seems to wait to fall until the worst possible time; right in the middle of haying season.
“Climate experts predicted we’d get warmer and wetter. That hasn’t happened,” says Ray. “In recent years, our summers have been probably five degrees cooler than they were in the previous 30 years. Our winters have been less severe than they used to be but that’s actually harder on the plants because we have more fall rain and less snow in winter. Our springs have been cool, dry and windy. And instead of getting rain in April or May when we need it, now we get it in July and August, October and November, even January and February in the form of freezing rain. It’s harder to establish crops and it’s harder to get good production now.”
Rain that falls at haying time, as it does on this grey day, is both an inconvenience and a challenge. Rain that doesn’t fall when it is desperately needed is an even bigger problem. Since about 2002, Ray says, his farm has received just 20 to 50 per cent of the total annual rainfall that fell on average each of the previous 30 years. The deep drought of 2010 was so severe that it caused the ground to form a hydrophobic layer, he adds, which compounds the moisture problem.
“Water can lay six inches deep on top of the ground, but if you dig down into the soil four inches, you hit dust. We used to have excessive moisture in the spring but that really made forages grow,” he says.
All told, the changes are wreaking havoc on forage production.
“We used to cut alfalfa between the 10th and the 20th of June and we’d get a second cut in August. Now, we’re not cutting until the second week of July or later and it’s often too late to get a second cut,” he says.
Agricultural researcher and consultant Dr. Catherine Tarasoff agrees, saying weather in the Bulkley-Nechako has changed dramatically.
In Vanderhoof, farmers observed that precipitation patterns became very different than what those farmers were used to. So weather stations were installed in 2014 that appear to validate the farmers’ observations: on average, parts of the region are now seeing about half the winter snowpack and twice the rain in summer compared to what they used to. It’s a big deal.
“Climate change might not be the focus of every conversation but it’s the reason farmers are having discussions about adapting and changing,” Tarasoff says. “Farmers know they can’t just keep doing what they’ve always done because it just won’t work anymore.”
Since there’s no way of changing the weather back to the more farmer-friendly patterns of the past, it’s farmers who will have to change. Unfortunately, declining government and academic research dollars mean there’s little help these days from scientists. Few if any formal research trials are taking place in northern B.C.’s unique growing conditions, and scientific support isn’t likely to come from government anytime soon.
“The budget cuts have really left producers in the lurch,” says Sheri Schweb, manager of the B.C. Forage Council (BCFC). “Saskatchewan has 14 forage specialists. B.C. has none. There used to be one agronomist per community, now there’s one — if that — per regional district. And we’ve lost the federal research farms: the one in Smithers closed in the late ’50s; the one in Prince George closed in the late ’90s. The Range Research Station in Kamloops closed in 2013. The only one that’s left in B.C. is the one in Agassiz, but nothing about the growing conditions in Agassiz is similar to growing conditions in northern B.C.”
A 2013 study commissioned by the B.C. Forage Council reinforces this perspective: it found opportunities to expand B.C.’s forage industry but also identified applied research as a major limitation to growth.
While farmers struggle, producer organizations and academic institutions are looking to stretch available dollars.
Despite modest financial resources, the BCFC is stepping up where it can to fill research gaps. Its solution? On-farm, farmer-led research: small scale, simple, practical, scientifically supported trials that attempt to answer individual farmer’s agronomic questions.
“People think research needs to be complicated,” says Tarasoff, who is working with the BCFC to build farmer-led research capacity. “It doesn’t. The foundation of research is taking something you’ve observed and wrapping a question around it. The more specific and concise the question, the more likely you’ll reach a clear answer. And who better to do the on-farm research than farmers? They’re the experts for their land, they know exactly which questions they’d like answered to improve their farm businesses, and they are the most deeply invested in improvement.”
Yet there’s also a downside to farmer-led trials, admits Schweb.
“Part of me wonders if government will say, ‘Well, if you’re doing the research yourselves, we’ll just stay out of it.’ But, the reality is, the government dollars we used to see aren’t ever coming back.”
Wayne Ray was one of the first producers to jump on board with the BCFC’s push to support on-farm research. Over the past two years, he has compared blended forages in hopes they might better withstand his region’s new, more challenging weather reality. And, since he’s heard countless different opinions on optimal seeding rate, he’s also testing whether heavier seeding rates are beneficial or a waste of hard-earned money.
“This kind of research is useful and it’s doable,” Ray says. “It doesn’t take any complicated tools: I’m using a couple dollar-store hoops, a kitchen scale and some zip-lock bags. It probably takes a couple hours at the front end and maybe four or five hours later in the summer. But down the road, if I can gain another 15, 20 per cent production and I’m going to see that gain over 10 years, that’ll be time very well spent.”
Six and a half hours south of Vanderhoof, a dozen B.C. agricultural producers meet bright and early on a Sunday morning in a basement conference room at Thompson Rivers University’s Student Activity Centre in Kamloops.
The ranchers have travelled to Kamloops — some from close-by, others from the Bulkley-Nechako — for the B.C. Cattlemen Association’s two-day conference and annual general meeting. Now, they’re investing an extra day in an intensive B.C. Forage Council-hosted workshop that will teach them how to conduct their own on-farm research trials.
Though not scientists — few if any of this particular group have university science degrees — there’s no question these producers are experts in their fields (both crop and academic). Their knowledge and experience make them uniquely suited to conduct the on-farm research that they need to make better farming decisions.
Their reasons for being at the workshop vary: Rene, Joyce and Nathan from Telkwa want to extend their grazing season; Greg and Kerry from the mountains above Kamloops are battling wet, alkali soil; John from north of the city wants to improve his forages to allow better rotational grazing. Yet all agree the real reason why they’re here: no one else is going to do the research for them, so they better figure out how to do it themselves.
Two or three to a table and shoulder to shoulder with the agricultural scientists who have volunteered to help this day, the producers work determinedly through the B.C. Forage Council’s newly published on-farm research guide.
Tarasoff, the workshop’s facilitator, repeats one over-arching theme throughout the day: “You can do this. You CAN do this. An on-farm research trial doesn’t have to be onerous; the very best questions are small and precise. But the results? The results will be powerful and informative.”
Several hours in, Tarasoff calls lunch break. Not a single person heads towards the buffet line. For 10 minutes, 20 minutes, almost half an hour more, the teams of producers and scientists talk intently as lunch waits ignored in the lobby. The producers are serious about this workshop and intent on gleaning every bit of knowledge they can; the scientists recognize the workshop as an opportunity to get farm-applicable science right into farmers’ hands.
The B.C. Forage Council is not alone in helping farmers help themselves. The University of Northern B.C. recently began a two-year pilot project to support on-farm, farmer-led forage research.
“We need to not just make farming sustainable but to expand it,” says Serena Black, a new masters in ag science graduate who is working with UNBC on their pilot. “All of the towns up around UNBC identify that logging is going down. All of a sudden, they’re recognizing that agriculture needs to be supported, but there are no government dollars to work with.”
A big part of building this form of research capacity includes figuring out ways to share the learning says Black. “Farmers are masters of land. Forage days, field days and other opportunities for farmers to actually see trials in action; that has to be a huge priority.”
As the BCFC workshop draws to a close, the farmers fold up their farm maps, collect their notes, and ask final advice from the research scientists. As they head up the stairs and out into the bright sunlight, ready for the drive back to their ranches, you can see resolve and — yes — enthusiasm about their upcoming forays into research trials.
Interestingly, the one conversation that hasn’t come up all day is frustration towards declining government research dollars, or a feeling of being left high and dry by government. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. After all, farmers are used to dealing with lumps and bumps, what “is” rather than what could be. And at least one rancher wonders if farmer-led research isn’t the more financially appropriate method of research anyway.
“I’m not opposed to people paying their own way,” says John Greenall, a rancher from north of Kamloops. “As a taxpayer, I’m not so sure farmers should expect the government to carry all the weight for research.”
He’s more than ready to do his part. After the day’s workshop, he’s itching to get home so he can get started on laying out the seven comparison plots he’ll use to determine the best forage varieties for his rotational grazing needs.
“I came here this morning with an idea of what I wanted to find out for my farm. I’m leaving with a plan,” says Greenall, who also happens to be president of the Kamloops Stockmen’s Association. “The workshop really did clear up how I need to go about doing a trial on my farm. I would have made it much more complicated than it needs to be.”
Greenall sees huge value in the day he’s just spent designing his research project.
“These are the kind of discussions that open up your mind,” says Greenall. “It’s like taking a first aid course. Sitting in a room and thinking about first aid for a couple days makes you more aware of safety in every aspect of your work and life, and that’s a good thing. Today’s workshop is going to help me implement the farm research project that I planned out today, but it’s bigger than that.”
“This is important stuff because, at the end of the day, you either evolve so you can stay in the game… or you don’t.”