Farmers need to get negligent operators to clean up their act

The answers to cleaning up ditches can be found in part at the farms themselves, says biologist

The handful of local farmers that protested Fisheries regulations in Vancouver last week need a reality check.

Most farmers are good stewards of the land, or have recognized the impacts their operations are having and are working hard to reduce them. A distressing number, however, seem to feel entitled to degrade public water and fisheries resources for their own gain.

People whose work takes them to many farms across the Valley (as mine does) will tell you that they see serious environmental problems on a daily basis: manure and milk-house waste running into waterways, livestock trampling spawning beds, clearing of the last remaining trees and shrubs along watercourses for an extra row of corn, manure spreading in winter or over top of waterways, herbicide use in the water. The list goes on.

It is true that much of the land around Agassiz is difficult to drain. It is also true that it would be a lot easier to drain it if farm practices were improved. The central issue is invasive grasses overgrowing ditches and streams and impeding flow. Why is the grass overgrowing the ditch? Could it have anything to do with lack of shade from vegetation, or over-fertilization, or soil eroding into watercourses? Of course it does. The first step farmers need to take to improve their drainage is to get the negligent operators among them to clean up their act. Establishing buffer strips of native vegetation along all watercourses, as recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture, would go a long way to mitigating impacts.

Much has been made of the fact that fish inhabit dug ditches and the claim that these areas should not be considered fish habitat. But if you dig a ditch and salmon move into it – it is salmon habitat, by definition. Just as when you plant a maple tree in your backyard and a robin builds a nest in it – it is robin habitat. Streams and ditches are inseparably connected by the water that flows through them. Ditches must be treated and protected as habitat, because a ditch – even one without fish – that spews muddy, polluted water into a clean fish bearing stream, will make that stream muddy and polluted. It’s that simple.

Much has been made of the impacts of species at risk protection on local farms. This is a red herring (a species that seems to be exceptionally common locally). Salish sucker and Oregon spotted frog habitats support salmon and trout as well. The habitats in question are as much a part of our food security as a corn crop. Ask any First Nation or commercial/recreational fisher.

Finally, I notice that there was no support voiced for the protesting farmers by their producers associations or the BC Agricultural Council. Dairy and other supply managed agricultural sectors are nervously eyeing the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board. They understand that the best defence of their marketing systems is a supportive public, and that an informed public is not going to support the status quo on many farms.

Mike Pearson  Ph.D., R.P.Bio