DAWSON CREEK – The Peace Region is conducting climate change adaptation research, thanks to federal funding.
The area received nearly
$6 million in funding through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Agricultural Climate Solutions – Living Lab program to develop best management practices that solve climate change challenges.
“I find the Peace Region is often forgotten about or maybe is a second thought, so to have an agricultural initiative come to our region is extremely valuable and I believe will create a lot of spin-offs,” says Peace Region Living Lab extension coordinator Nadia Mori. “Already I’ve noticed the BC and Alberta researchers, producers and commodity groups, through the application process, worked a lot closer together when usually we would work separately. I think just that has created a lot of synergies.”
The project spans the BC and Alberta Peace Region and supports research over the next five years to investigate such parameters as carbon sequestration; greenhouse gas emissions; environmental co-benefits including water infiltration rates, soil health and species diversity; and socioeconomic factors of best management practices.
“There are roughly 13 Living Labs in total (nationally) and none of them are cross-provincial so … we were quite skeptical that our application would be accepted because it usually is a provincial initiative,” Mori says. “But at the same time, the Peace Region as a whole, especially if you look at it from a watershed basis, it does make sense to put it together [because] geographical, soil and climatic factors are all very similar.”
The project launched this fall, starting with baseline data collection of one-metre-deep soil core samples to measure carbon levels on each of the 60 participating farms.
The region has been identified as one of the areas with the greatest carbon sequestration potential, Mori adds.
“I think that is one of the reasons that the region was selected,” she says.
Neil Ward, a rancher northwest of Fort St. John, echoes this sentiment.
“This might be one of the largest carbon sinks in North America. It’s not recognized as that,” he says. “I think it may gain some recognition for how special the area is and how well agriculture does here and how important it all is.”
Ward runs 850 cow-calf pairs and 600 yearling heifers on his ranch and looks forward to learning just how much carbon his land sequesters.
“We all know we’re putting back quite a bit of carbon into the ground through grassland management and I’m quite excited to see how much,” he says.
A unique aspect of Living Lab research is that they are in fact “living,” which means that experimental designs and practices can evolve over time.
“It’s a five-year project. Usually you get a one-year project or maybe two or three but to have a five-year project to work on is really exciting and then to have the living portion of it,” Mori says. “So, if we do something for two years and we notice that we should tweak the practice, we can do that because we’re not locked in like if you have a rigid science experiment.”
Other important distinctions of this type of research is that it is producer-driven and looks at agricultural operations as whole systems.
“We really want to look at how the whole farm comes together around this practice. What are all the aspects that it influences? It could change the labour needs or family dynamics, which are all kinds of little secondary effects that may also be important for why or why not something is being adopted,” Mori says.
At Ward’s ranch, researchers will monitor his rotational grazing practices.
“The biggest thing that they’re doing is that they’re actually studying regular agricultural practices of a rancher rather than in a controlled environment,” Ward says. “They’re on the ground studying what’s actually happening on an actual real ranch.”
At Willms Sunflowers in Rose Prairie, Les and Hannah Willms have been conducting their own experimental projects for years, so they were eager to join the Living Lab through the BC Grain Producers Association.
“It’s an interesting program … it’s investing in helping us find solutions to improve our soils,” Hannah says. “We’re farmers so we grow stuff but because the climate is changing, we need to find solutions for our ground so we can improve soil infiltration, manage the growing times here better.”
The Willms have a no-till operation and they’ve planted such crops as radishes, turnips, clovers and alfalfa to break up compaction, fix nitrogen and sequester carbon.
But to adopt best management practices, they need to make dollars and sense, Hannah urges.
‘”It’s a struggle for farmers to figure out how to fund some of this stuff,” she says. “Especially with cover crops up here in northeastern BC; they aren’t something you can do after your cash crops. The season is short. When we take our cash crops off, typically we’re getting snow.”
Last year the Willms planted cover crops after receiving a grant from the BC Hydro Peace Agricultural Compensation Fund. The Living Lab is an extension of this work.
“It’s a really good connection to have because we can connect with these agrologists from across the province and Alberta to help build our soils,” Les says. “If we can increase our organic matter and grow better crops in the tough years, then we will sequester more carbon.”
To disseminate findings to the remaining 1,540 producers in the region, the participating groups will create learning clusters and facilitate on-farm gatherings.
There will be opportunities for the community to visit farm research sites, be part of field days and collect data as part of the peer-to-peer learning and adoption, Mori says.
The project is led by the Peace Region Forage Seed Association and includes the Peace River Forage Association of BC, Northern Co-Hort/NEAT, BC Grain Producers Association, Fourth Sister Farm, North Peace Applied Research Association, Mackenzie Applied Research Association, SARDA Ag Research and the Peace Country Beef & Forage Association.