Farming on wet lands: One farmer's journey
The Canadian Freshwater Alliance's new blog series, Freshwater Focus, profiles individuals and organizations that have undertaken interesting and creative projects that benefit our freshwater.
As our first post in the series, read about one farmer's mission to become more resilient and sustainable in a changing climate.
E-mail email@example.com if you have a case study you would like to have profiled on the blog.
Land use change can have significant impacts on the environment.
Globally, agriculture is responsible for the largest conversion of land from natural to developed states. About 40% of the earth’s surface is agriculture. In Canada, that number is much smaller -- about 7% of land is used for agricultural purposes. However, the vast majority of that agriculture takes place in the southern parts of the country, where the greatest number of people live. The streams, lakes and aquifers that surround the bulk of agricultural operations in Canada are the same ones from which the majority of the population drink, fish and play. Farming, if not done prudently, can be a big drain on the quantity and quality of our freshwater.
Adopting environmentally friendly agricultural practices is therefore a pretty big piece in the sustainability puzzle. As climate change puts increasing pressure on our lands and waters, striking a balance between farming and the ecosystems that sustain it will be ever more important.
Brenda from Kelowna, BC is a farmer who is well aware of this reality. I went to visit Brenda at her Curly Frog Farm on a grey November day to talk to her and take a tour of the farm.
Brenda began her foray into the agricultural world 15 years ago, when she purchased the land now known as Curly Frog Farm. A lifelong resident of the surrounding area, she was compelled to start farming because she wanted to have a livelihood where she could be close to the landscape she had always called home.
As we walked about, she explained to me how she sees the duty of farmers as being stewards of the land. “We live here on the land,” she affirmed to me. “This is our livelihood.”
The previous owner of Curly Frog had used the land for many years to raise livestock, and Brenda continued on that path for some time. However, after a while, she ran into some trouble. As the years went on, Brenda noticed her lands were subject to more severe and frequent flooding. The combination of shifting meteorological trends, consistent with climate change models, made for wetter springs, and years of cow hooves compacting the soil decreased the land’s ability to infiltrate water. The resultant flooding made raising livestock incredibly difficult. After a few years of this, Brenda lost farm status due to low productivity.
“I couldn’t produce in a wet field,” she lamented to me. “By the time your livestock could come back--your growing season for them is so short, there’s no income in that. And I didn’t know any other way to farm.”
Brenda was discouraged, but determined to find a way to keep farming.
She threw herself into research, learning about farming techniques that worked with--not despite--flooding. She was particularly intrigued by the ancient Aztec technique of chinampas: rows of raised soil beds amidst ponds of water, where crops like beans, maize and tomatoes were cultivated. Chinampas, she learned, helped to mitigate flooding and keep the soil moist.
Inspired by this, Brenda took a chance and got in touch with the BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF). With BCWF’s help, Brenda began the process to convert swathes of flat pasture to a state reminiscent of how the area likely resembled many years ago: wetlands.
Working with the flow
Wetlands and farming aren’t the most common of bedfellows. Although some of the most fertile farming lands are found in floodplains where water naturally accumulates, the history of farming in North America and elsewhere is largely one of draining water. In BC, a maze of irrigation ditches and weeping tiles were installed throughout the province over the course of the last 150 years. This infrastructure allowed many a farm to establish itself, making the land more suitable to growing certain crops, tilling and seeding. However, this also radically changed the natural hydrology of many regions. Further, drained land is thirstier land, but crops need water to survive. Therefore, the history of agriculture is a story of the dual trend of removing water, and bringing it back with irrigation.
It is no environmental anomaly that Brenda’s land is subject to flooding. The Curly Frog Farm, like the majority of the surrounding farmland, was once a network of wetlands and streams. However, drainage projects in the area allowed the land to become more amenable to uses like cattle grazing, growing orchards and ground crops. As for Curly Frog, although the land used to stay dry enough to rear livestock, changing climate conditions undermined that livelihood.
Brenda reckoned that she had better work with, rather than against, mother nature.
BCWF regularly hosts intensive “Wetlands Institutes” around BC, and in 2015 the institute was hosted in Kelowna. I just happened to be a participant that year, and worked with Brenda, BCWF, other wetlands experts, and some 30 participants from around the province to help construct a series of wetlands on Curly Frog Farm. It was an exciting process for the participants, and a nerve wracking one for Brenda, who watched anxiously as excavators dug up her farmland to make ponds that would, we hoped, hold water come spring.
One year later...
One year has passed, and the ponds are indeed holding water. It was exciting to go back to Curly Frog Farm after a year and witness the transformation of the landscape.
Brenda and I chatted as we strolled on the beds between the ponds, which she had recently planted with pawpaw--a fruit indigenous to North America that grows in floodplain areas. Brenda described the taste as somewhere between mango, banana and apple, with the nutritional content of all three. In a landscape dominated by cherries, apples and vineyards, pawpaws are “something different” she tells me--a unique species that she hopes will attract local interest.
I asked Brenda how flooding was this spring, and she remarked how it had been notably calmer than previous years. “There must not have been very much snow in the mountains last winter,” she remarked.
A bit of a local hydrology geek, I thought of the snow pillow charts from the previous winter. “Actually,” I replied, “last winter was a weird year. There was a huge snowpack--almost a historic maximum--but it all melted really quickly, way ahead of schedule. Within a month, the snowpack went from a near historic maximum, to a near historic minimum.” That meant in the spring months, there was an awful lot of water rushing down the mountains.
We both cogitated on that for a bit. “Oh neat!” Brenda exclaimed. “The ponds must be helping with flood control!”
Although the pawpaws won’t be mature and ready for market for another few years, it was exciting that the wetlands already seemed to be serving their hydrological purpose. Beyond flood control, Brenda noted some ecological benefits, like how a variety of birds and other small creatures seemed to be enjoying the new habitat.
Although it is still early on in the transformation, Brenda has big plans for Curly Frog Farm. She hopes in a few years when the pawpaws are mature, she will be able to make her farm into an agritourism venture, where visitors can U-Pick pawpaws and learn about how the wetlands marry agricultural ambitions with environmental concerns.
Despite her excitement, there are challenges. “It’s a big learning curve,” she remarks. And there isn’t a ton of support out there for farmers wishing to take the step to embrace sustainable farming.
“Sustainable farming has three legs,” she explains to me. “Sustaining the environment, sustaining the community with healthy and affordable food, and sustaining the farmer with fair living wages.”
The third leg, she argues, is the most difficult to achieve, especially in the relative absence of support from government and other sources to help farmers transition to sustainable practices.
“The onus is resting on farmers to try to find resilient crops to deal with weather extremes [related to climate change],” she reflects.
Thankfully, BCWF helped Brenda apply for funding through a grant, which helped to ease the financial pressure of the project. But with few funding sources available from government and not very much logistical support, Brenda has had to assume a lot of risk. Although she firmly believes that agriculture and natural ecosystems can and should peacefully coexist, she wishes that environmental, agricultural and governmental organizations recognized the strain farmers feel, and offered more support to farmers.
I asked Brenda if she would do it again if she knew then what she knows now. Without hesitation, she tells me she was glad she did it. The oft flooded pasture lands certainly weren’t serving her well, and she is excited to be on the leading edge of sustainable farming.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” she tells me.