ABBOTSFORD – A new strategic framework for regenerative agriculture and agritech marked Pam Alexis’s first major event as the province’s agriculture minister when she addressed the Pacific Agriculture Show in Abbotsford on January 26.
The framework puts a fresh stamp on the province’s development of a Regenerative Agriculture and Agritech Network (RAAN), a priority in the mandate letter Alexis received when she took office in December.
But the reaction from farmers is mixed.
“BCAC wasn’t involved in the process at first,” says BC Agriculture Council president Stan Vander Waal. “Since we first heard the terms in 2020, we had been asking the government to define ‘agritech’ and ‘regenerative agriculture.’”
A ministry presentation to farmers at BCAC’s Ag Days lobbying event in October led to BCAC being included in framework development.
“Since we’ve been engaged … we’ve covered a lot of roadway very quickly,” says Vander Waal. “I believe we have come up with something we can work with.”
Georgina Beyers of the ministry’s Agritech, Innovation and Regen Unit says a minister’s advisory committee was formed last June to guide network development.
Tasked with providing “strategic advice to government on opportunities to promote innovation, technology adoption and regenerative practices,” the 17-member committee includes five active farmers and ranchers. BCAC had no direct representation, however.
But in January, the committee joined with the Indigenous Advisory Council on Agriculture and Food and the BCAC working group in developing the strategic framework presented at the PAS.
Beyers views the exercise as “an important opportunity, after the fire and flood disasters of 2021, to engage in much-needed discussion about the future of food security in BC.”
Whether or not it’s a good fit for the farm sector is another question.
“I’m going to be cautious,” says Vander Waal about the BCAC’s participation in the process. “There’s a mutual comfort level with where we’re going … but there are real differences in the way we see regenerative agriculture.”
He points out that “agriculture is a big business and feeds a lot of people; it’s got big responsibilities,” while regenerative agriculture, which is soil-based, is a subset, or “one tactical approach to sustainability.”
Vander Waal is enthusiastic that the framework is focused on sustainable agriculture.
“We have reached environmental standards in agriculture that didn’t exist 10 years ago … the sustainability of agriculture is growing every month,” he says.
The PAS regenerative agriculture sessions included a keynote on Indigenous agriculture, panels on initiating and scaling regenerative agriculture practices, and presentations on soil science and the Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic Certified standard.
The morning program was interrupted by an official announcement from the new BC Centre for Agritech Innovation at SFU about matching funding awards for four BC agritech businesses: Aeroroot Systems (aeroponics); Agrotek Industries (plant fertilizers); Bakerview Eco-Dairy (farm-based research and agritourism centre); and Lucent BioSciences (cellulose-based crop nutrition).
“Agritech can be a great enabler for regenerative agriculture … to help us ensure that BC food systems remain secure, resilient and sustainable,” said Alexis in announcing the funding. “These are the first of many exciting projects … which will stimulate BC’s agritech sector, support high tech job creation and introduce new technologies on farms to increase productivity and improve the bottom line for farmers and producers.”
Though such high-level government statements consistently link regenerative agriculture and agritech, Vander Waal struggles to see the connection.
“Regenerative agriculture and agritech don’t marry,” he says. “The two are almost on two different planets.”
RAAN advisory committee member and Lillooet rancher Tristan Banwell also has questions.
“We use a lot of technology on our farm,” he says. “Google Earth, RFID tags, movable electric fencing … but the agritech that government supports, who is it intended to serve?”
Speaking at the PAS and in a workshop at the Islands Agricultural Show in Duncan, February 4, Banwell described the process of transitioning his ranch to regenerative agriculture practices.
He emphasized the importance of establishing guiding principles and goals “to ensure our choices are taking us toward our desired future,” and of changing grazing patterns and animal genetics gradually, over time.
The ranch, now in what Banwell calls its “10th first year,” has transformed into “an organic diversified business selling around 200 different products while improving ecosystems, soil health and rural livelihoods at the same time … and producing more than six times the revenue we expected to achieve as a cow-calf operation.”
Banwell is seeking regenerative organic certification to distinguish his products in the market.
“Consumers want to make a difference. Facing these [climate] challenges and looking for solutions toward them is driving this interest that we’re seeing in regenerative agriculture, both among consumers and producers, and also major agri-food companies,” he says.
Fellow RAAN committee member and Tea Creek Enterprises owner Jacob Beaton from Kitwanga spoke in his keynote to the potential for farms that are “land-based, Indigenous-led and culturally safe.”
Tea Creek enrolled 180 Indigenous farm trainees in 2022, and Beaton sees significant opportunities for Indigenous farmers to help renew BC’s agriculture sector, which saw the number of operators fall 10% between 2016 and 2021.
Beaton described how Indigenous agriculture has been deliberately restricted by the Indian Act and other colonial policies, many of which – such as 20-acre limits on farm size and lack of access to financing – still hamper Indigenous farmers today. He calls for “reconcili-action,” beginning with changes to how Indigenous farmers access farm loans.
“We’ve got to get away from just land acknowledgments and start changing policies,” he says.
The current members of the minister’s advisory committee serve until the end of May. Going forward, it and the other advisory groups will focus on “tactical planning” through five sub-committees looking at extension, regenerative agriculture guidelines, agritech description, incentives and soil projects.
Vander Waal sees the planning phase as a time to sort priorities.
“Some of the toughest discussions will happen through those committees, because that’s where we will learn how we’re going to achieve this and what it really means,” he says.