INVERMERE – Farmers and ranchers in the Columbia Valley will continue to see rewards for taking action to conserve and enhance important riparian areas on their farms.
The Windermere District Farmers Institute (WDFI) was one of nine groups named in January to receive a share of $133,600 this year through the Columbia Valley Local Conservation Fund for projects to support fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and advance conservation in the region.
WDFI will receive $17,985 to provide incentives to 11 farms that are working to restore and conserve riparian zones.
The project is part of the larger Farmland Advantage program, the brainchild of Invermere cattle rancher and WDFI director Dave Zehnder.
Zehnder first worked with the farmers institute to seek funding for the program in 2009, when the conservation fund was established. The idea was one he thought could work in BC, rewarding farmers for delivering what was then known as ecological goods and services.
Such programs contract farmers to conserve and enhance natural values on private land and pay them for the benefits. Unlike carbon credits, which can be traded, the value of wetlands filtering and purifying water and forests that clean the air and provide habitat for wildlife have a social value.
Just 5% of the land in British Columbia is privately owned, and the majority of that is farmland in river valleys. Healthy riparian areas are important for water quality and as wildlife habitat.
Zehnder has always envisioned a province-wide program paying farmers for ecosystem services to the broader community, similar to how Switzerland pays farmers to maintain alpine meadows. US Department of Agriculture programs have paid farmers since the 1950s to take ecologically sensitive land out of production. Rents paid through the Conservation Reserve Program are aimed at reducing erosion, improving water quality and providing wildlife habitat. Something like this had never been tried in BC and Zehnder wanted to see if it could be adapted for local conditions.
Some small on-farm pilots laid the foundation for a five-year pilot that started in 2016. The name Farmland Advantage was adopted and a working group that included scientists and experts with knowledge of the top conservation issues in the various regions identified new sites. This gave Zehnder and the group a chance to try different mechanisms, develop the structure and flesh out how the contracts would work.
By the end of the pilot in 2021, more than 60 demonstration sites were operating across BC and more than 740 acres of prime riparian habitat was contracted for conservation and enhancement. Based on this success, the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC (IAF) agreed to take over delivery and administration in spring 2021. IAF engaged Upland Consulting to assist with program management. Zehnder continues to advise on program development.
“After the five-year pilot, we said ‘Hey, it’s ready. Is someone interested in taking it on?’ IAF had just done strategic planning and decided this was a good fit for where they wanted to go as an organization,” says Zehnder. “My dream has been realized in some ways in that it has become a program. That’s just a miracle to me.”
Farmland Advantage now works in several regions around the province to help farmers enhance the natural values on their land. In close cooperation with a local working group, WDFI oversees projects in the Columbia Valley. A working group on Vancouver Island focuses on the Koksilah River watershed and a Lower Mainland working group is addressing the Little Campbell River with input from the Langley Environmental Partners Society.
Farmland Advantage also works with ranchers and farmers in the grasslands of the South Okanagan and is partnering with the Shuswap Indian Band on projects to conduct riparian restoration along creeks on farms and ranches within reserve lands.
Funding comes from a wide variety of sources. Zehnder says it a good deal for the farmer, and a good deal for the funders and the community.
“We showcase what could be done, to help the funders understand what the potential of the program could be,” says Zehnder. “The farmer gets paid and the money they get offsets the costs they incur when they do these things. The farm doesn’t lose money doing this, and it helps improve the image of agriculture to society.”
Zehnder credits the Columbia Valley conservation fund for its long-term support and encourages other jurisdictions to embrace their model.
The funding structure itself is notable. It was the first conservation fund of this type in Canada. The funds come from property owners in the service area, each of whom pay a parcel tax of five cents per $1,000 of taxable assessed value, up to a maximum of $230,000 annually. It works out to about $20 per parcel. From its start in 2010 through 2021, approximately $2.5 million has been disbursed through 101 grants to local groups.
“The local conservation fund has been part of that story all along,” he adds. “It’s always been an important source of funds and one that we think has tremendous potential in other jurisdictions in BC. You think about the population of Greater Vancouver for instance, even a dollar per household could generate significant funds to support that region’s agriculture in their work in this area, never mind $10 or $20.”
Zehnder likes the combination of local people paying into a fund that supports local farmers to do things that benefit the local population but also society as a whole. Columbia Valley farmers – who would otherwise have limited resources to devote to stewardship efforts – have certainly benefitted. Over the years, WDFI has received $135,125 through the local conservation fund.
“[My] ultimate dream is that this could become a part of farming in BC,” says Zehnder. “Where this is part of the business of farming and we’re supported by the community and the community understands the value of agriculture beyond food.”
After last year’s catastrophic fires, Zehnder now has his sights set on getting communities to see the benefit of paying farmers to keep farmland green to act as a buffer between forests and communities.
“There are so many amazing applications for this model,” he says.