Sunday, 26 February 2012

Something New, Something Better

I did promise to try to be positive and constructive from time to time. Here's some very practical research being done in this region that could have very real benefits for the bottom lines of farmers, and the environment. It's a cliche, but this is win-win.  This is from an article I wrote:

The Right Spray, the Right Amount, in the Right Place

In a perfect world, fruits, vegetables and grains wouldn’t need pesticides.  This isn’t a perfect world, and even organic pesticides  can cause unintended consequences.  What if just the right amount of pesticide could be used, and even more importantly, just where it’s needed. That’s something that’s now possible.

Six years ago a small group at Oxford Frozen Foods were told by their boss, seventy-two year old John Bragg, to find some way to cut down on the company’s environmental footprint, in other words use less pesticides. The company farms over 12 thousand acres of wild blueberries, so the pesticide bill is pretty steep, but  Gary Brown, a field manager with Oxford,  says there was something else at work.   “One of his (Bragg’s) favourite sayings is, you people are not farming for me, you’re farming for my grandchildren.”

The company past the challenge along to  David Percival who heads up the Wild Blueberry Research Program at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.  They discovered that  there is  technology being used in the Florida citrus industry that offered exciting  possibilities. This began a research collaboration between the University of Florida, and NSAC  that has now led to a workable combination of  conventional spray gear, and digital  cameras linked to a cab computer and comptroller that can turn on just the needed spray nozzles, even just one,  at just at  the right time. “We can just apply the agrochemicals where they’re required in the field, we don’t have to do blanket applications, and overall that’s a reduction in the risk right there,” says David  Percival. 

Both David Percival and Gary Brown credit  Dr. Qamar Zaman for moving the project ahead so quickly. Dr. Zaman, an agricultural engineer with training in Pakistan,  and England, had experience, including in Florida,  with what’s  now being called “precision agriculture”.   “We gave Dr. Zaman a real challenge” says Gary Brown. “Number one this has got to work, and number two it’s got to be user friendly because it’s going out into the farming community, and number three it’s got to be cost effective, it can’t be expensive equipment that the farmer can’t afford. He has accomplished all three.”  Brown says everything but the software package and comptroller  could be bought off the shelf at a good electronics store.

There are videos here   that show different  spray nozzles going on and off as the spray boom and tractor move along the field, applying the pesticide just where it’s needed.  The software is sophisticated enough that it can  distinguish between weeds and the main crop. “It can identify the weed by colour,  it can identify the weed by height,  or it can identify the weed by texture”, says Gary Brown. He has presented the research to the Canadian Horticulture Council which is made up of fruit and vegetable producers from across the country, and he says there’s a lot of interest.

NSAC has started the process of commercializing the technology. “Hopefully that’s something we will do through the coming year. With that being the case I would say the first generation of this should be available in two to three years” says David Percival. 

Oxford Frozen Foods used the technology on some of its commercial blueberry fields last Fall to control weeds.  Gary Brown says the savings in pesticide use and money were substantial.  “We’ve been able to reduce our chemical use in some fields by as much as sixty percent.”

No one can say right now what farmers will have to pay in additional cost  to purchase this technology for their spray gear, but some think it should be around seven thousand  dollars.  That would be a very quick pay back for a large operation using pesticides that are becoming increasingly expensive. 

The technology is obviously most suitable for perennial crops like wild and high-bush blueberries, and other fruit trees, but David Percival says with its GPS capability it could be used to prevent any spraying in sensitive environmental areas on any farm.  “It allows us to work in fail safes. For example if there is a watercourse in the area, we can build in that we need a buffer of so many meters” say David Percival.

“Precision agriculture” has always had the feel of expensive high technology to it,  really only suitable for very large farming operations. The developers of this technology hope the savings it generates will more than offset the reasonable cost, and if it lessens the “environmental footprint” as well, then the benefits will be even greater.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Water in All the Wrong Places

This really is ironic.  When residents and businesses in Charlottetown turn on the tap they draw almost all the water from wells drilled  into what's called the Winter River watershed, and it's a lot of water: 18 million liters a day (about 750 thousand two-fours of beer), the highest draw during August (probably drinking the most beer then too).  The people who care about the environmental health of this watershed say it's too much. It's more than the sustainable re-charge (essentially rain that trickles through the sandstone into underground aquifers). In fact a section of the Winter River  went dry last summer, killing fish, and sending an important warning.

And when it rains, something else happens too:  Charlottetown's storm sewers send so much excess water to the waste treatment plant that raw sewage has to be dumped into Charlottetown harbour, shutting down shell fishing, and giving Charlottetown a black eye.  The City of Charlottetown is now trying to deal with both issues.

Lessons? There are certainly some when it comes to sewage. In the 1970's when the communities surrounding Charlottetown  like Parkdale, East and West Royalty etc, tied into the waste treatment plant on the waterfront a lot of money was saved by combining real sewage and storm drainage into one pipe from each community rather than two.  Now millions more will have to  be spent to separate storm run-off from sewage, something that could have been done properly in the first place.

The shellfish closures are the result of a change in policy by Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada, not really  any increase in pollution or run-off from the plant.  It's to protect U.S. markets for shellfish that the departments developed protocols to shut down harvesting when there's any risk of contamination. The departments do the same in several bays and estuaries.  And Environment Canada was doing it's job when it ordered Charlottetown to fix the problem. It did the right thing.

Solving the supply of water is going to require more than just spending money.  It's almost certain that Charlottetown will drill new wells on land its bought in Miltonvale Park.  (Residents of Miltonvale Park have been warned that if Charlottetown does this it will draw a lot of water and limit the number of new home lots the community will be able to establish.)   But even this new supply of water won't be enough to get the drawdown from the Winter River back to sustainable levels, and cope with any  future growth.  All this is happening as Stratford and Cornwall, the two fast growing communities on either side of Charlottetown face their own water supply challenges.

Basically it means residents and businesses will have to change the way they use water (conservation, what a concept). Water meters will be part of the mix. Any new homes being built now must have them installed, and everyone interested in this  topic says they're coming.  It's never easy when we're asked to think about the real cost of things that feel free (water, medical care, creative material on the web, etc.). Perhaps the more important consideration is how much we're wiling to pay for carbonated sugar water, fancy coffees, and hundreds of cable tv channels that offer so little worth watching.  It seems sensible to price reasonable water use at a reasonable price, and then quickly increase the cost for residents and businesses using more.  Residents may have to sweep their lane rather than use the hose. It'll be OK.

A tip of the hat to Summerside for encouraging people to use off-peak wind power to create and store heat during the night which can be released during the day.   Any effort that can "store" renewable energy  is very important.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Beavers and Buffers

Trust me, this does relate to growing food, and no it has nothing to do with eating beavers.

Let's start with buffers.  We began hearing about them in the late 1990's with the release of the Royal Commission on the Land.  Buffers are a no-go area that were seen as a way to push back farming and forestry from waterways to slow down soil erosion and pesticide run-off.  For many landowners buffers (first 10 now 15 meters)  represent a loss of productive land, or trees that couldn't be cut. The distribution of waterways around the province means the impact of buffers is very uneven. Some farms have multiple streams running through them and considerable land has been lost. On other farms there is little impact.

On the surface buffers seemed like an easily understood and straightforward approach to protecting waterways, but it's been anything but. High priced lawyers have gone to court to make very technical arguments about the definition of a waterway, and where a buffer should be measured from.  Rules over headlands were so complicated that a Department of Justice lawyer was seconded to the  Environment Department to try to make sense of it all.

And now beavers have made all of this even more complicated. Beavers are native to PEI but other than trappers (and Richard Brown and his trunk load of dynamite-this was many, many years ago, and he certainly wasn't the only one), beavers have few natural predators.  Beavers build dams to expand their territory by flooding land giving them easy access to food (willow and poplar). These wetlands can play a very useful role in the environment, as a water sponge, and filter, but most rural landowners would rather they set-up home on someone else's land.  There is a season for trapping beavers, and, like coyotes,  if landowners can prove a nuisance, trappers can get a permit to get rid of them.

This flooding certainly changes the "edge" of a waterway, and creates confusion over where a buffer should be measured from.  Here's how a buffer zone would normally set-up:

Once beavers build dams, the stream rises, and the edge moves into the buffer, making the buffer appear to be too narrow.  This continues to be an issue when wood cutters or farmers try to determine how close they can crop land or cut trees. in other words where does the buffer start.

If beavers have changed a waterway I think  the buffer should be measured from wherever the water's edge is when the planting or cutting is taking place.   If the reason for the buffer is to keep sediment and pesticides out of waterways, then  that's what it should be allowed to do.  Yes some kind of record with a picture or video should  be taken to establish what was going on at the time, because the stream edge could well change again because of heavy  rainfall or more beaver activity, or the dams disappearing.

I realize this is far from a perfect solution and that cutting trees and farming isn't always pretty, but we have to keep going back to the reason for buffers. They're not there to frustrate or bankrupt farmers and forest contractors, they're an imperfect way of finding some balance between resource extraction and protecting the environment.  With government cutbacks, more and more of the regulating of buffer zones and wetlands is being pushed back on the private sector (after a day's training) and I'd like to think that this will be done responsibly. If it isn't there will be some kind of backlash.  There's growing interest and involvement in watershed improvement groups, and that means more people paying attention to what's going on around waterways. (Full disclosure: I'm involved with the Montague and Valleyfield Watershed Enhancement Co-op and had some experience with buffer zone regulations and beavers which got me thinking about this.)

The bottom line for me is that some kind of common sense needs to prevail.  I am eternally sympathetic to the challenges farmers and forest contractors face trying to make a living off the land, and the growing lack of understanding amongst Islanders about how difficult this is but  I also get the feeling that when it comes to environmental regulations that there's a constant effort amongst some to push the limits, and then plead ignorance when caught.  I want farmers and forest contractors to accept buffers as a part of the price for lower taxes,  the growing support for local food, and having good neighbors.  There is a lot of anxiety about the environment amongst many Islanders, and farmers and forest contractors need to take concrete steps to regain trust. Fighting to use every square inch and tree in what should be a buffer zone and then blaming beavers isn't the way to do that.