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B.C. disasters, extreme weather underscore need for climate-resilient agriculture

VANCOUVER — Wildfires, sweltering heat and extensive flooding in British Columbia last year have underscored the importance of strengthening the agricultural sector's resilience to the effects of climate change and extreme weather, experts say.

"We should be building the infrastructure for the next 30 years, starting yesterday," said Sean Smukler, chair of agriculture and environment at the University of British Columbia.

B.C. is "ahead of the curve" in Canada, he said, pointing to the government-funded Climate & Agriculture Initiative launched in 2013. It has developed eight regional adaptation plans along with climate-related resources for the sector, while supporting research at the farm level.

Still, the province's adaptation efforts have been incremental when they should be urgent, said Smukler,who's also the principal investigator at the university's Sustainable Agricultural Landscapes Lab.

He said funding is needed to match the scale of the challenge.

"We have to get going now or else we're just going to be in a reactionary mode constantly, and reactionary mode is going to be so costly, much more costly than if we were being proactive and planning out a viable future," he said.

The second half of 2021 in B.C. offers a snapshot of potential costs.

Severe drought and destructive wildfires last summer prompted the B.C. and federal governments to allocate $20 million to help farmers and ranchers recover, while a summer heat dome scorched berry crops in the same prime agricultural area in the Fraser Valley that was devastated by floodwaters in November.

Dozens of blueberry and raspberry producers were affected, about 4,000 tonnes of stored and unharvested field vegetables were lost and an estimated 628,000 chickens, 420 cattle and 12,000 hogs died, provincial officials said at the time.

B.C. has so far provided $3.7 million in emergency funding to help farmers secure hay and forage for their animals along with $2.7 million to help dairy, poultry and pork producers avoid added expenses of feed delivery.

The province is working with the federal government to develop a "comprehensive financial support package" for farmers affected by flooding, with an announcement expected in the coming weeks, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement.

Such extreme events are not the only threats to agriculture, saidEmily MacNair, director of the Climate & Agriculture Initiative.

The province has yet to confront the challenge of ensuring there's enough water for food production over the longer or even the nearer term, she said in an interview.

The agricultural sector is one group of water users among many as communities across B.C. grow, she said, and droughts are worsening with climate change.

It's going to get drier, so it's logical to consider how to store excess water from spring freshets or heavy precipitation in the fall and winter, MacNair said.

B.C. is home to a high proportion of small, family-owned farms that produce a wide range of products, she noted.

Such diversity offers opportunities, she said, since smaller farms may be more nimble in experimenting with new methods or technologies to support resiliency, but they may also have limited financial capacity, time and other resources required to implement costly solutions.

Building a more climate-resilient agricultural sector also requires addressing broader issues in landscape management that affect agricultural operations, in addition to adaptation efforts at the farm level, MacNair said.

Logging and wildfires, for example, have affected the landscape's ability to store and regulate water, said Andrew Bennett, an irrigation designer who owns a small farm in Rossland, B.C., and works with the Kootenay & Boundary Farm Advisors.

The forest canopy provides shade, slows the springtime melt, and healthy trees prevent soils from eroding; rain and melting snow run more quickly off burned or logged slopes, leaving little water left come summertime, Bennett explained.

"We need to have mountain slopes that are treed, with deep soils, to hold water so it trickles out all season long."

Soil is key to managing water, said Bennett, who works with his local municipality and wildfire prevention groups to divert wood waste that's usually burned or taken to the dump into soil to boost its organic content, aprocesscalledhugelkultur.

Logs break down much slower than chipped wood, keeping carbon stored for longer and acting as a sponge to increase the soil's capacity to store water, he said.

Much of Bennett's work with the Kootenay & Boundary Farm Advisors involves helping farmers improve the quality and capacity of their soils to increase yields and strengthen resilienceas the climate changes, he said.

The group also works with farmers to improve their irrigation systems and use water more effectively, but Bennett said they need more support.

Some are holding down other jobs just to pay for the farm itself, he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2022.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press