Letters to the Editor

Watersheds coalition makes offer to Agassiz ditch-lined farmers

I completely agree that farmers should be compensated for land dedicated to vegetated buffers along sloughs and waterways (Lake Agassiz forming on local farmlands). That is why the Fraser Valley Watersheds Coalition (FVWC), of which I am a member, invited folks up from Whatcom County, Washington, last year to speak about a program that pays landowners double the going annual rent for land committed to vegetated buffers. If implemented in the District of Kent, a similar program would pay landowners $500-$600 dollars an acre per year, and cover costs of site preparation, plants, planting, fencing and maintenance.

To see whether that amount is fair, we have been looking at the case of dairy farmers, who produce six to seven tons of ‘dry matter’ per acre per year. That lost production could be replaced by buying alfalfa hay, at a cost of $280 to $300 a ton. Grass or corn for silage, if available, would cost less.

In buying those six or seven tons of dry matter, the farmer would avoid the usual production costs, which for corn include land preparation and seeding ($500 an acre), harvest ($100) and potential rent ($250). The farmer would also save on storage space, planting cover crops and management time. So the actual value in lost production is no more than $1,000 an acre. And this formula applies to good farmland, whereas land adjacent to sloughs and watercourses is often poor farmland.

To calculate further, the area in the District of Kent identified as ‘critical habitat’ for endangered species – also critical to salmon to trout – is about 50 acres. So the maximum amount needed to compensate dairy farmers for lost production is $50,000 a year, which is a bargain.

In addition, vegetated buffers provide other economic benefits to farmers, especially the retention of precious topsoil. Research also shows that uptake of water by woody plants and trees helps lower water tables, thus reducing flood risk and improving production.

By extension, the District of Kent would also benefit because less soil erosion means less silt in the waterways, reducing the need for maintenance. Vegetated buffers also filter nutrients (animal manure) and provide shade, so channel-clogging reed canary grass would grow less readily.

Ideally, a program of payments for vegetated buffers would be developed and managed locally, through the District of Kent and local landowner organizations. Farmers could sign a long-term lease with the District, and incentive payments could be deducted from property taxes.

Funding could be provided by agencies such as the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which is experimenting with incentive payments in the Kootenays and the Fraser Valley. Alternatively, Species at Risk Act (SARA) has provisions to compensate landowners for economic losses associated with critical habitat protection.

In the end, the important thing is that the District, landowners and non-profits groups work together to develop a practical, business-oriented solution rather than waiting for heavy-handed regulations are imposed.

Detmar Schwichtenberg

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