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Vol.102 Issue 12

CLBC Dec16 1.pdf

Farm over troubled water  [Special report by Peter Mitham]

SPALLUMCHEEN – It’s a warm autumn afternoon, and Dale Jansen is between chores on his farm in the Hullcar Valley near Armstrong. A hawk soars overhead while Jansen’s cattle await the afternoon milking crew.

Despite critics who point to the farm – the second largest in the area – as the source of nitrates found in the water the Steele Springs Water District supplies to about 160 people, the farm isn’t a faceless corporate dairy.

“It’ll be my son, my daughter and then two gals from down the road that are helping,” Jansen says in the lunch room just down from the 50-stall carousel milking parlour. “I fed the cows this morning. Everyone thinks this is a big corporation. This is the family farm. This is as much a family farm as the majority of dairies that are milking 120 cows.”

While the farm is a newcomer to the area, arriving in 2006, the Jansens have been dairying for three generations.

Brothers Andrew, Dale and Harold relocated the farm from Matsqui when it couldn’t acquire the land it needed to grow. Dairying has become a volume business, and greater production keeps farmers such as the Jansens in the game as a tide of cheap imports keeps prices down.

“Milk prices get tighter, our margins get smaller, you have to get more efficient,” Dale Jansen says.

What was a 600-cow farm in 2006 has expanded to 960 head, all of them Holsteins. The farm now owns 1,300 acres, up from 760 a decade ago, and has access to a further 700 as far away as Lavington, east of Vernon. Andrew and Dale recently bought out their brother’s interest.

While not uncommon in the Lower Mainland, the size of the farm has spooked local residents. What are common farm practices elsewhere have sparked concern here.

When the Interior Health Authority told Steele Springs households to test their water after nitrates twice the allowable limit of 10 parts per million (ppm) were found in 2014, it was a case of déjà vu. A feedlot on a 220-acre property the Jansens acquired for their operation had been pegged as leaching nitrates into the local aquifer in the 1980s.

With the latest contamination, all eyes turned to the Jansens.

“We’ve had people ask, ‘You don’t live near that big dairy do you?’” he says, noting how things become uncomfortable when people find out they’re actually the operators. “You tend to make friends that aren’t right here.”

It’s a shift from 2008 when an open house attracted 900 people to the farm to see what was considered a state-of-the-art operation. The family had planned the move carefully when it found it couldn’t expand in Matsqui.

The farm drafted an Environmental Farm Plan – something it hadn’t had in the Fraser Valley – to guide its work. A flush system, common at some of the province’s largest operations, was chosen to clear manure.

An earthen lagoon 500 feet by 300 feet, with a volume of 3.3 million cubic feet, was constructed. Similar to municipal sewage lagoons, the facility was equipped with a liner in accordance with provincial standards. All manure cleared from the barn undergoes mechanical separation into solids, which are dried into flakes for use at a farm in Lavington and liquid (effectively, grey water) that’s reused for flushing the barn. Any excess liquid is deposited in the lagoon and used on the fields.

The liquid effluent is less dense, typically with 10 pounds of solid per 1,000 gallons rather than 30 to 40 pounds per 1,000 gallons. This makes it easier to pipe to the fields than solids, and the nitrates are more readily absorbed.

However, the critics don’t see it that way.

Brian Upper, a retired livestock vet who oversees the Steele Springs Water District, and the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team (SHAT), a local advocacy group headed by retired journalist Al Price, argue that effluent from the Jansen operation is responsible for elevated nitrate levels in the Hullcar aquifer.

By separating out the solids, the critics say Jansens aren’t practicing wise nutrient management – at least not for the local hydrology.

Provincial maps describe the Hullcar aquifer as unconfined and of low vulnerability. Jansen notes that the aquifer wasn’t identified as a concern prior to the family relocating the farm to the area in 2006.

“When I went and got my permit, I asked a whole bunch of times before I bought the land, before I built – it was zoned A-3, intensive agriculture – so they gave me the permits,” he says.

Difficult history

Yet the difficult history of the area’s aquifer wasn’t entirely unknown to the Jansens.

Water drawn from a well at the southwest corner of the property was known to be dirty. The field of concern – a parcel of about 200 acres above Deep Creek, a stream that flows south and is fed by the Hullcar aquifer – was originally planted with alfalfa in order to scavenge nitrates from the soil.

The idea was to remove excess nutrients and prepare the ground for corn, a crop with shallower roots and a lower nitrate requirement.

“We were hoping that if there was a problem in that field, [the alfalfa] would scavenge anything,” Jansen explains.

But in March 2014 the B.C. Ministry of the Environment issued a compliance order requiring the farm to conduct regular soil and water sampling and report the results to the ministry, prepare an annual nutrient management plan and limit effluent applications to the field of concern.

“I’ve been happy to jump through the hoops for those previous two years,” he says. “A lot of this stuff, when this thing first started, it actually made me a better farmer.”

The nutrient management plan the government required was a helpful exercise, and prompted him to increase his land holdings to accommodate effluent from his herd.

“I’ve probably double the land I need now,” he says. “I was so concerned that they weren’t going to let me put any nutrients on the field … that I started looking into these other other fields.”

The compliance order was cancelled this past May, and pollution abatement orders issued to the Jansens and eight other farms in the valley. Designed to address immediate risks to human health and the environment, the new order required that the farm implement a monitoring program and action plan to address the contamination the ministry had reasonable grounds to believe was leaching into the local aquifer.

Jansen has spent approximately $70,000 to date drilling five monitoring wells. While other farms are contesting the orders, with one winning a cancellation, the total cost to local producers to implement monitoring programs could be well in excess of $200,000.

Unlike the management plans that helped him do his job better, Jansen said the wells are a cost with no benefit – though they might help everyone understand what’s taking place beneath the ground.

“We’re going to be on the forefront of what goes in ag and nutrient management, because I don’t know of anybody who’s gone through the stuff we’ve gone through,” he says.

Uncertain future

Jansen doesn’t know what will come next, regardless of whether the government finds the nitrates are coming from his farm or someone else’s, or a combination of several sources.

The environment ministry’s zero-tolerance policy regarding pollution jeopardizes the significant capital investment he and others have made in the valley, and the efforts local farmers have made to implement best management practices.

Worse, the situation is playing out in uncertain times.

Regulations regarding the discharge of agricultural waste remain in flux, while comprehensive mapping and assessment of the province’s aquifers has only just begun. The registration of wells is in its early stages, and has drawn meagre participation in its first year. There is much left to learn about the volume and habits of the water that flows under our feet.

“We can’t protect our groundwater if we don’t know what’s there,” points out Brent Mooney, a Fraser Valley nursery owner who represented the BC Agriculture Council at Metro Vancouver’s recent agricultural water forum.

Jansen hopes a resolution will result from the time, effort and cash spent on wells, government studies, and consultants’ review of the results that a resolution of sorts will be possible.

“I’ve come to accept that we’re not going to please everybody, that’s impossible,” he says. “But I hope we come to a solution between us and the government, because they’re the ones who control it.”

However, it’s government that’s at fault, says Al Price.

Blame for the drawn-out investigation of the matter and the fact that local residents still can’t drink the water from Steele Springs, falls squarely at the feet of government in his mind.

“Nobody’s really blaming this farm,” he said. “Our issue is with the way the farm is managed and that is directed by the provincial government.”

The mistrust makes Jansen uneasy.

What happens if Price and other critics don’t agree with the science the government presents?

“You know what the scariest part about this thing is?” he asks. “If they don’t believe the science and they just believe it’s me … I will be dealing with this for the rest of my life.”