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Gaining farmland advantage payments for ecoservices

Ecosystems meet economics for sustainability in B.C.

cow in the mountains

Returning from college to the family ranch was something of a reality check for Dave Zehnder. The open spaces, wildlife and other farm families that he had taken for granted as part of everyday life were being lost to recreational and urban developments in the scenic valley surrounding his hometown of Invermere, B.C.

Dave Zehnder

Lessons from his livestock production economics classes kept ringing in his head. “If my job is to maximize returns from the assets we have, I should be looking at a condo development or golf course. My inconvenient truth is that I shouldn’t be farming at all.”

On the other hand he knew that other values from their land base and management could contribute to the ecosystem while still producing food.

Only five per cent of the land in B.C. is privately owned, primarily by farmers and largely in the valley bottoms where streams flow and wildlife roam. The combination of income from producing food and providing ecosystem services, such as improved water quality and important wildlife habitat, could improve the economics of running farms and encourage farmers to stay.

Zehnder was aware payment for ecosystem services (PES) had existed for many years in his parents’ home country of Switz­erland and other European countries, as well as the U.S., Australia, China and Costa Rica. And he believed the people of British Columbia would be willing to pay farmers for ecosystem services if they understood the value they provided to the community. Initial attempts working with the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association to sell the concept of a PES-type program to the provincial government led to a dead end.

“If farmers wanted to pursue this, we would have to do something on our own, not funded by the provincial or federal governments.”

“We would need to start small and find other funding sources to prove the concept,” remembers Zehnder. Drawing on a U.S. idea where communities collected special taxes to support conservation on private agriculture land, he and a group he was part of pitched the idea to their local government. With support from local politicians, the question was put to ratepayers in a referendum that went in favour of paying a special tax of $25 per parcel annually to support local conservation projects on private land.

In 2009, he started a project on the family ranch as a way to demonstrate the process by providing one ecosystem service. A small lake and stream in the watershed that supplies Lake Invermere were fenced off and they invested in a portable solar-powered watering system to supply the cattle. Scientists and experts monitored the project for three years, laying the foundation for a basic verification model for the fledgling program.

Since then, he’s noticed a gradual shift in attitudes across Canada toward supporting conservation, and today there is a national working group made up of people from ALUS, SODCAP in Saskatchewan, and Farmland Advantage attempting to keep this momentum moving.

Enhancing Natural Values

Farmland Advantage is a five-year research and development project that was formalized last year. The goal is to establish a full, long-term PES program across the province.

The 11-step framework that forms the basis of the work plan has been in full swing since funding for the first year was secured from the Columbia Trust Fund and the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program.

“The focus is on making sure our model is solid to show proof of concept, so we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin right out of the starting gate,” says Zehnder, who is leading the project.

The plan is to start small, setting up riparian health demonstration sites on farms of all types, then evaluate the results and make improvements to their model before they open it up.

They drew on earlier work done for the original Ecosystem Services Initiative, a three-year research and demonstration project on 30 farms and ranches in B.C. and Alberta that funded ecoservices related to water quality and quantity, biodiversity, species at risk and carbon sequestration.

From that project Zehnder learned you can’t offer a one-size-fits-all type of program. Every region and every farm is different. It’s a matter of matching the needs of both when it comes to ecoservices.

They also needed a way to monitor and verify their results to the community. In the end they adopted the methodology used by Alberta’s Cows and Fish to assess riparian health.

“A PES program has to work both ways,” he says, “so we also need a way to capture the costs and benefits on the farm side. As farmers running a business we are concerned about the ongoing cost because we don’t want to add another unpaid job. We need to be aware of how the cost-benefit shakes out for us. By calculating the benefits to the public and the bottom line for producers, the project will be able to determine a fair price to pay producers,” Zehnder explains.

The Farmland Advantage model has evolved in sync with the long-established Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). Provincial EFP advisers help producers develop an action plan and apply for cost-shared funding to implement appropriate beneficial management practices (BMP). The PES program then kicks in with funding to cover the farmer’s ongoing costs, including labour, to maintain the BMP.

Zehnder says farmers favour adding PES programming as an extension to their EFP. They already know and trust their EFP advisers, and this way they have one contact for both programs.

Farmland Advantage trained some EFP advisers last year to get this strategy started, but it is the advisers who sign up the farmers, monitor the sites and collect economic data for the cost-benefit analysis.

The British Columbia Agriculture Council (BCAC), which administers the EFP program, is seen as the logical overseer of a long-term PES program. It is an industry association representing more than 14,000 farmers and ranchers and 30 farm-sector associations.

The fundraising strategy for the long term is to establish multiple sources contributing to a common pot. The initial plan is to approach conservation/mitigation organizations, corporate sponsors and all three levels of government. A third-party survey indicated good support for local levies to support local or regional farm-based conservation. The bonus is the educational value to local people who support the ecosystem on agricultural lands.

Farmland Advantage is led by a provincial working group drawn from government, the wildlife federation, conservation organizations and the BCAC as the farmer representative. With advice from various experts, the group has identified three southern regions with important watersheds that would benefit most from a PES program: Kootenays, Lower Mainland, and Okanagan.

Local regional groups decided to target riparian conservation and enhancement and species at risk habitat on 60 demonstration sites in the three regions.

They rated farm sites according to their potential to deliver ecoservices and offered five-year, fee-for-service contracts to take actions (beyond routine management practices) to conserve or enhance riparian areas. The annual payment was set at an arbitrary amount for now, but eventually will be set by monitored results, plus a financial and environmental economic analysis.

“We had an amazingly good response from farmers,” says Zehnder. “They get it. They’re interested in it and they do what they commit to do.”

Naming the project Farmland Advantage was the first step in rebranding the concept. Feedback indicated the old name, Ecosystem Services Initiative, didn’t resonate with farmers, funders, the public or government.

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