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Salty business

Canada might hope climate change will force Europe to import more food. European farmers say we shouldn’t hold our breath

Sheep indoors at Frain’s farm.

Here in Canada, we’re used to talking about the rise in extreme weather that comes with climate change, and we debate how it will affect crop and livestock production.

In Europe, the debate has another twist. There, farmers are also worried about rising ocean levels. Why?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S., global sea levels have been on the rise during the last 25 years and are currently increasing by an average of about 3.1 mm per year.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but by 2100, it’s estimated that on average, global sea levels will be up anywhere from 0.2 to 2.0 metres, or eight to 80 inches.

A recent Natural Resources Canada report puts Canada’s coastal population at approximately 6.5 million people. In the U.S. almost 40 per cent live in coastal areas, and globally, eight of the world’s 10 largest cities are near a coast.

Sea levels add up to a direct and significant threat to low-lying coastal regions and to transportation, water, sewage and electrical infrastructure.

For farmers, the impact will also be felt away from those coastal areas, with higher sea levels pushing salt water flooding and storm surges farther inland, leading to salinization of the soil and water. That will directly affect soil quality.

Globally, according to the Salt Farm Foundation in the Netherlands, a leading global research centre and authority on saline farming, between 70 and 120 million hectares of coastal soils could be damaged, or, alternatively, could be kept producing.

The European Union (EU) is taking a proactive approach to addressing the issue in its North Sea region countries. Through a program called SalFar, researchers in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom are looking at the salt tolerance of crops and at innovative methods of farming on saline soil.

The goal is to create awareness of salinization, offer farmers new ways to produce food, and help farmers create new business strategies for their farms.

For some European producers, farming in salty coastal soils is nothing new, so they’re leading the way by building opportunities to make their unique ecosystems work as part of their farming businesses.

In France, Yannick Frain’s sheep graze on the salt marshes surrounding the famed Mont Saint-Michel. One of the crops they consume is salicornia — also called samphire — that grows in the area, giving their meat a naturally salty flavour.

Salicornia is a spindly succulent with small, brine-flavoured leaves that can be used as a replacement for salt in a wide variety of foods and recipes.

Frain’s land on the bay is a mixture of polder (fields reclaimed from the sea in the 1850s when the dike was built) and salt flats where the tides — the second biggest in the world behind those found in Canada’s Bay of Fundy — still flood in daily.

He’s one of 30 sheep producers in the region who raise and sell the specialty salted meat, and he led the more than two-decades-long process for the unique product to achieve the EU’s AOP certification that guarantees origin and production standards.

Yannick Frain. photo: Supplied

“It’s a voluntary certification of quality where you have to accept audit and follow strict production standards,” he said in French during a visit to his farm, adding that half of the farmers in the region are now certified under the program.

That program, for example, sees lambs spend a minimum of 90 days on salt marsh pasture, reaching a market weight of 14 kilograms. Frain’s graze about 180 days, and weigh about 18 kilograms when they are marketed.

Opting for the official seal reduces fraud, improves marketing opportunities with restaurants, butchers and consumers, and perhaps most importantly, has doubled the price for local pré-salé (“pre-salted”) meat producers like Frain.

“Pré-salé is the most expensive lamb you can buy — it’s a product of exception and we can’t satisfy all the demand,” Frain said, adding he also markets both his own meat and that of local producers directly, giving better control over both product and profitability.

One kilogram of pré-salé sells for €35 (C$50) per kg in the local Normandy region and as much as €70 in Paris.

That compares to €12 (C$17) for French lamb produced without any kind of certification.

Salicornia plants. photo: Supplied

But although the salty sea is the foundation of his business, Frain also worries about the impact water will have on his future. He needs fresh water for his sheep — 10 litres per day per animal — which is currently trucked in from a source 50 km away.

“Water will be the problem in the future; it is what is hindering our growth,” he says. “I see on my land that sea water is rising and it will go over the dike if nothing is done.”

In the Netherlands, Hubrecht Janse is one of six farmers growing Salicornia commercially. He farms on land in the province of Zeeland that didn’t actually exist 40 years ago — at least, not above water.

In the early 1970s, the Dutch government built dikes and drained large sea areas in the region, creating new opportunities for farmers, including Janse’s grandfather, and they have worked hard to make the land productive for grass, sugar beets, potatoes and wheat.

Hubrecht Janse photo: Supplied

“Our challenge is to get yield on saline soils so we use gypsum, cover crops and no till,” Janse said. “When my grandfather first started, the field was like low tide, and drainage water was gathered and pumped into the sea.”

But there’s a limit to how much and what can be grown on soils that remain salty, and the farm’s lowest fields are below sea level. Although protected by two dikes, they’re still at risk of salinization from lake water seepage.

That’s why Janse started looking for new opportunities and in 2006, grew his first plot of salicornia on just 500 square metres (0.12 acres).

Today, he harvests daily and sells it to supermarkets, restaurants and directly to consumers, as well as marketing salicornia cosmetic and food products from face and hand cream to vinegar, mustard and mayonnaise under his family’s own Zeeuws Zilt brand.

There can be issues due to fungi, mildew and pythium, which the crop is susceptible to — and to date, no crop protection products are approved for use in salicornia, which is irrigated and grown no till without rotation.

Salicornia products. photo: Supplied

Janse, however, has worked closely with saline plant breeder Dr. Joost Bogemans and his company Serra Marris to develop the crop and establish its agronomics, and now also grows seeds for export.

They’re learning. But there’s more to do. “When all goes well,” said Janse, “we can harvest 15,000 kilograms per hectare per year, but sometimes you only get 8,000.”

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