Ranchers matched with hay supply, but water capture needed

Written By Rob Shaw

“Water is the lifeblood of our industry, it doesn’t matter what commodity you are in.”

Jennifer Dyson

B.C. announced funding for a new “dating service” of sorts last week to match farmers and ranchers with available hay and grain supplies during the ongoing record drought and wildfire season.

The $150,000 investment to the Access to Feed program was endorsed by dairy and cattle farming associations as a realistic way to help tackle the feed shortage that is causing some farmers to consider selling their herds.

“Really what we’re doing is somewhat of a dating service for producers, to hay suppliers,” said Kevin Boon, general manager of the BC Cattlemen’s Association.

“We’re looking in other jurisdictions outside of B.C., and within B.C., and we’re getting a tally and an accounting of what feed is available, what type of feed, and how to access it.

“So in some cases, we may move some cattle to the feed, and then other cases, will be bringing the feed up.”

Although a good, small-scale, immediate move, pretty much everyone acknowledges it’s not enough.

Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis pointed to immediate pre-payments of AgriStability grants from the federal government, an application extension for that program, and an ongoing push to get Ottawa to defer taxes on cattle sales to help farmers have the cash to hopefully survive the season.

The dairy and cattle ranchers were polite and supportive of the provincial effort during last week’s press conference, but during the question and answer session with media it soon became clear that they have much larger suggestions for government about aid needed to help them store rain and snow runoff for what could be increasingly common future droughts.

‘Water in BC doesn’t happen today like it did 10 years ago’

“It’s important that we recognize that water in B.C. doesn’t happen today like it did 10 years ago,” said Jeremy Dunn, general manager of the BC Dairy Association.

“It doesn’t rain at the same time. The sun isn’t out at the same time. We’ve got lots of water, but we’re not getting it at the right times, in the right places. And some long term investments need to be made in B.C. to be able to set us up for the future for both agriculture and wider society.”

Many farmers already dig rudimentary dugouts to store water from the rain and freshet seasons for later irrigation in the spring and early summer. But it’s not efficient, or enough. Some, who have the money, can build underground storage tanks.

“We’ve got lots of water, but we’re not getting it at the right times.”

Jeremy Dunn

The province should be offering interest-free loans and grants, that help farmers build water capture and underground storage systems to dramatically improve their ability to water livestock and crops during future droughts, said Ian Paton, BC United’s agriculture critic.

“They do need some grant money or infrastructure loans to be able to build an infrastructure to capture water,” said Paton.

“B.C. has gobs of water, let’s face it. Look at our climate in the winter months, between snow and rain we should be able to capture that,” he said. 

“I don’t think these hot dry summers in B.C. are going to go away any time soon, so we better be planning for the summer after that, and on and on. Let’s start figuring out ways to capture water and keep it in storage.”

‘Water is the lifeblood of our industry’

Such a program would not be cheap for the province, though it would land on the capital side of the budget alongside spending on highways, schools and hospitals. That kind of large-scale investment in agriculture and food security has not been seen in decades, under either the NDP or previous BC Liberal governments.

It could also run into water licensing and stewardship legislation, which protects fish-bearing streams to preserve adequate flows.

“Water is the lifeblood of our industry, it doesn’t matter what commodity you are in,” said Jennifer Dyson, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission.

The costs and licensing issues around the province to store water are “complex,” she said.

Boon said the red tape would have to be sorted out, but that kind of assistance is critical to the future of the sector.

“The more we can store and manage it on the ground, the more we have the ability to actually utilize it.”

Kevin Boon

“Water storage and that ability, and I’m not talking about great big megadams or anything else, it’s about where we can store it,” he said. “If we need to look back on things like what do the beavers do, and we look at the beaver dam situation where they do a series of them. And that also will offset some of our flooding issues. 

“The more we can store and manage it on the ground, the more we have the ability to actually utilize it for various things including agriculture, food production and humans,” Boon said.

Farmers need long-term water capture solutions

B.C. did launch a $20 million Agriculture Water Infrastructure program this year, to help the sector adapt to climate change. The money is spread over three years, and local governments are eligible as well. The fund covers 50 per cent of costs by farmers for things like expanding water storage systems, like dams, piping or tanks, plus water assessments and engineering studies.

“I can tell you the uptake has been swift,” said Alexis. “People are looking at how they store water more efficiently.”

Paton said the province should have used some of the surplus money this year to set up an agriculture disaster contingency fund that could have paid out financial aid for things like drought, flooding, fires and mudslides “so they are not scrambling at the last minute.”

B.C. is already in the grips of the worst drought in its history, with provincial experts expecting a worsening hot, dry August. It’s too late to help fund water capture for farmers this year — but the province has an opportunity to step up and boost help for the future. The situation is only going to get worse.