Jumping on the opportunity to research farmland in the West Kootenay
By Rachael Roussin, UBC Master of Land and Water Systems
Rachael Roussin is a passionate food systems advocate, a Rossland REAL Food co-founder, and a former Rossland Mountain Farmers’ Market manager. As a UBC Master of Land and Water Systems student, Rachael jumped on the chance to explore West Kootenay food systems issues. Her research into the region’s agricultural potential offers a unique perspective on realizing untapped capacity for local food production.
I am a true believer in the value that increased local agricultural offers to our communities, economy and environment. As a Kootenay resident who left farming and went back to school, I was therefore naturally guided towards the Faculty of Land and Food at UBC. I wasn’t a seasoned farmer but I’d experimented with an organic greens business on borrowed land and been involved with regional food security initiatives for years.
I was tired of hearing there was little agricultural potential in the Kootenays because of our mountainous landscape, short growing season and limitations for mechanized large scale agriculture. Recent changes to British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which had put my whole region in “Zone 2,” also supported the ‘crazy’ notion that Kootenay land is somehow second-class in its capabilities. I was burned out from addressing the long list of socio-economic barriers to farming in our region and looking for a new ‘hopeful’ perspective on our food security potential. Science provided that framework.
I decided to use my Masters’ research to answer the question “how much farmland is actually in the West Kootenay?” Discovering the Soil Capability for Agriculture maps produced in the 70’s by the Canada Land Commission was a starting point for my work. The maps apply a soil classification from 1- 7 for largely mechanized agriculture (with 1 being the highest and 7 being the lowest) and subclass that identifies the land’s limitations. Because the maps were in a digitized format, I could harness the power of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to analyse multiple data sets of information such as regional district boundaries, ALR designation and soil classification to quantify agricultural land in the region.
Additional resources helped to a picture of our region’s agricultural potential, including the Farm and Operator Data from the Statistics Canada Census of Agriculture, which reports on land and crops under production, and climate change models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report for 2050 that were downscaled to our region.
Typically, only Soil Class 1 – 4 is considered suitable for ‘mechanized’ agriculture but I pushed the boundaries in my analysis by including Soil Class 5 as farmland. Although limitations such as soil water holding capacity, topography and stoniness might limit the cultivation of field crops, it may be suitable for small plot mixed vegetables, orchards or niche crops such as grapes in areas which are climactically suitable.
My research showed that only 10% of suitable agricultural land Class 1 – 5 (or 31% of the ALR) is actually under production, thus the West Kootenay is well situated to grow more food and is therefore possibly a good place for aspiring farmers to find farmland.
The soil subclass limitations provided a general overview of soil characteristics: overall, West Kootenay soils are well draining and have a low moisture holding capacity (likely attributed the soil’s coarse texture, low clay and organic matter content). Low moisture holding capacity can be improved with organic matter but irrigation is required for soil productivity and climate change will likely increase irrigation requirements. This means that irrigation infrastructure is a high priority for a Kootenay farmer!
Because of the region’s mountainous topography, there is a lot of variability in farmland distribution and climate with 91% of prime agricultural land (Class 1- 3) concentrated in four regional district areas out of eleven with local microclimates that historically varied from 130 – 150 frost free days. Climate projections indicate that frost free days are likely to increase by 30 to 90 days by 2050, which would likely extend the growing season and broaden the range of crops that can be grown.
This range of soil and climate creates opportunities for pocket agriculture, specialty niche crops, and different production systems throughout the region.
There are limitations to my study. I was unable to identify exactly what farmland is underutilized in the region, limiting the application of the research to identify specific parcels of land to new farmers. Also, when measuring how much land was under production my study only accounted for farms that report to Statistics Canada. This excludes small scale or backyard farm operations, meaning that my study likely underestimated the amount of land under production. Climate change also presents a broad range of impacts to the agricultural sector and only the opportunities of increased temperatures were addressed.
One portion of my research that I truly enjoyed was the Soil Capability Maps. I simplified them for my report in hopes that aspiring new farmers could use them to make informed choices about where to start looking for land. Farmers may also find the climate analysis useful. It looks at 6 different agricultural areas and suggests that although all areas will be warmer, some areas will be even hotter and drier than others. This means if you want to start an orchard, it should be in a different location than if you want to start a broccoli or greens operation!
To conclude, although this study strongly suggest that there is potential to increase agricultural production in the region from a biophysical perspective, other issues including land access and the economic viability of small scale farming, offer challenges to increasing the amount of land used for agricultural purposes. These issues are complex. However, farmland is a non-renewable resource and this study confirms how scarce good farmland is. To disregard the value that protecting farmland for agriculture has for our local economy and food security is irresponsible and short-sighted. The ALR legislation recognized this forty years ago!
This study will hopefully bring us one step closer to identifying specific tracts of agricultural land that are underutilized so that organizations like the Young Agrarians, land owners, farmers and local government can work together to make farmland available to new entrants which may inspire more people to enter the farming sector, remove barriers and get more land under production.
To take a closer look at Rachael’s work, download the poster and summary of the research:
To learn more about Rachaael’s research, send her an email.