Grass along a greenbelt in B.C. turned brown due to the dry weather. Revelstoke Review/File photo

Column: scientists have a sense of urgency on climate change – and farmers?

Columnist David Zirnhelt on how farmers can adapt as the climate shifts

These days and these times, many of us feel we have to do something to adapt to climate changes. It is colder than usual, or hotter and drier, or it is wet when the ground is supposed to be frozen over. There are “unprecedented” severe weather events to be ready for.

I write this from Kamloops, where I am attending the BC Agriculture Climate Adaptation Research (ACARN) Workshop.

ACARN is led by soil scientists and others from the University of BC. The organization is funded by a donor who was concerned that our food providers were not ready for coming changes, and members of the Faculty of Land and Food Systems stepped forward with a proposal for a network of researchers.

They are supported by BC’s Ministry of Agriculture’s Climate Action unit. A few representatives of producer organizations like the Tree Fruit Growers, the Cattlemen’s Association and the Cariboo’s Agriculture Research Alliance are attending.

The feeling is that there are research projects that will help farmers and ranchers, for example, fire preparedness and recovery.

At this conference, one scientist is proposing work be done on promoting aspen as a tree cover, which is known to cool the earth and, to some extent, fireproof the forest.

There has been some science supporting this. We know in the Cariboo that fires often stopped when they reached aspen groves. And maybe pastures with nicely spaced Aspen would be good fire breaks for settlements and farmsteads.

The quality of grazing under Aspen can be superior to that under pine and fir. Managing for a silvopasture situation (trees and grass) on the landscape may be very desirable. Trees can stop the overheating of the soil and keep the grass growing.

Just how that might be done on an appropriate scale is the question.

Some research has been presented showing how farmers on the prairies don’t really embrace the idea that humans are generating unprecedented climate change. However, they are more than willing to do things that mitigate the production of greenhouse gases and certainly want to adapt to the new climate variations.

Some of these practices, like minimizing the tillage (plowing and farming up the soil) are known to store more carbon in the soil (and quickly). The promotion of soil health is embraced by farmers who mostly pride themselves with good stewardship of the earth and, especially, their farms.

Governments often decide, and have in B.C. (the previous Liberal Government), to help farmers adapt to the changes through “adaptation” activities, which can be done here and now.

Many leaders are in denial, as are some farmers, and feel mitigation (tackling the root causes of climate change) is too difficult.

The good news is that often these things are one and the same thing: conserving organic matter in soil is going to reduce the off-gassing of carbon dioxide, as is minimizing the number of times the soil is cultivated.

So, the researchers here are building teams who collaborate with farmers and ranchers on practical projects designed to help make farming profitable and therefore sustainable, by keeping production up and costs down.

Fall is the time of conferences when farmers aren’t so busy. For my part, I like to work on the land until it is frozen up and even then, there are places to go (fencing on wetter soils) and things to do.

But conferences can be very stimulating and reassuring if they are on practical topics that we know will make a difference in the short term.

David Zirnhelt is a rancher in the Cariboo and member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association. He is also chair of the Advisory Committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching Program at Thompson Rivers University Williams Lake Campus.

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