When in Drought
Connecting the drops for a food-secure future in southern Vancouver Island’s rapidly changing climate
By Mike Graeme
“Look at these. They’re all dying.”
I am walking with Ann and Gord Baird, founders of Eco-Sense Nursery in the Highlands, on W̱SÁNEĆ territory, where they have lived for 13 years. Ann is pointing to the fir trees that once stood tall and green—alive—around their home at the nursery. “We’re on 7.5 acres, but last year alone we lost 54 new Douglas firs,” she says. “Our cedars are mostly long gone.”
With increasingly hotter and drier summers, southern Vancouver Island is experiencing a devastating loss of evergreen trees, especially western red cedars. It’s no coincidence that my tour of Eco-Sense is taking place during the hottest July ever recorded globally. Not only are the Bairds losing the tree cover that protects their food-growing soils, but the dead trees are also a ticking time bomb amidst their gardens.
Pictured: Gord and Ann Baird of Eco-Sense
“Trees like that—that’s like kindling. We’re toast if a fire goes by,” she says. So many native tree species withering before our eyes may be a harrowing visual, but the erratic new climate and dry soils killing them mean equally bad things for the food systems on which we rely—both locally and further afield. “Look what’s happening across Canada,” says Ann. “It’s either drought, flood, heat wave, or pest, and it’s just wiping crops out. Eventually, you can’t get [your food] from somewhere else because they’re having the same problem, or a different problem.”
While the Bairds are adapting in the short term by growing deciduous fruit trees to serve as firebreaks, regenerate the soil, and increase animal habitat, they have also been actively raising the alarm. As municipal councilors for the Highlands and members of CRD committees—climate action for Ann, with Gord as a water advisory member and vice-chair of the regional water supply—they have been pushing for stronger policy changes at the municipal and regional levels. Their goals are to both slow and adapt to the climate crisis and the effects it will
continue to have on our food supply.
The Bairds are not alone in talking about how climate change is yanking the tablecloth of our food supply out from under our plates. The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report in August 2019, presented in Geneva and authored by over 100 scientists, on the topic of land use. “Food security will be increasingly affected by projected future climate change,” it reads.
And it’s a two-way street: 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are created by food production, the report claims, while 70 percent of freshwater use is allocated to agriculture. So changing our food system has the potential to both slow the climate emergency and make it more resilient in the face of the crisis.
Here in B.C., the Ministry of Agriculture is also acutely aware of the impending threats to our food supply. “Climate change poses a unique challenge for B.C. farmers,” says Jillian Milne, a ministry public affairs officer. “Warmer, drier summers are leading to increased wildfire risks, variable seasonal conditions, new or more abundant pests, and changing hydrology.” Agriculture Minister Lana Popham adds that our shrinking agricultural land base makes matters worse. “It’s so important that we act now to protect B.C.’s farmland because climate
change is already decreasing the amount of arable land available throughout the world,” she says.
For over a decade, the provincial and federal governments have been providing funding to the B.C. Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI), which is a partnership formed with agricultural groups in 2008 to develop regional climate change adaptation strategies across B.C. CAI has become “a delivery agent for the B.C. government’s climate adaptation programming for agriculture,” says Director Emily MacNair. A strategy has yet to be developed for Vancouver Island, but MacNair says the CAI plans to begin one in the fall 2019 with
an expected release date of spring 2020. Once the climate strategies have been developed, CAI will begin guiding farmers and food growers to apply them, MacNair says. “CAI will work to develop and deliver these projects with local partners in the three years following the plan’s completion,” she adds, referring to the summer of 2020 through to spring of 2023. “There will be $300,000 in seed funding to support the
projects we identify and leverage other funding sources as well.”
DON’T LET THE GARDEN BEDBUGS BITE
In the meantime, the Bairds continue to promote adaptation practices they’ve learned through experience, such as planting more diverse crops. “You’ve got a lot of farmers that are specialized in one crop—monoculture. That doesn’t build biodiversity. It toasts the pollinators Their crop just gets hit by diseases or pests, and they get nothing,” says Ann. “Whereas every year at Eco-Sense, we have stuff that gets hit but we have such diversity that it doesn’t really matter.”
When a farm specializes in only one genetic variety of a crop, the whole harvest risks collapse if a disease or insect arrives that preys on that species. Ann’s words are backed by the 2019 IPCC report, which states that climate change will result in novel distributions of pests and diseases, negatively impacting crop yields in numerous regions. It adds that by diversifying crops, the ability for farm systems to adapt to the climate breakdown will be increased.
Managing for emerging infestations is central in the CAI’s climate adaptation strategies across B.C. For example, the 2018 climate strategy report for the Cariboo-Chilcotin region recognizes that populations of diseases and insects are linked to weather patterns, which are becoming more irregular due to climate disruption.
“Climate change is resulting in an increase in the complexity of pest management for all agricultural production systems,” says MacNair. “Producers will need to have a range of ways to respond to these shifts, and CAI has supported numerous projects related to pest monitoring and management.” CAI’s work includes helping farmers identify pest issues and improving the tools and resources they need to best resolve
them, MacNair says. “There is rarely a single, simple solution that will result in a more resilient system, so this might include a broad range of practices.” Some she lists include more pest monitoring, improving soil and crop health, and implementing certain plant varieties.
CONNECTING THE DROPS
Gord says the importance of diversity doesn’t stop above ground but plays a role in the soil as well. If soil lacks diversity, it loses the capacity to hold both water and carbon, he says. This is significant, given that the emission of carbon as a greenhouse gas is a key driver of climate breakdown. “For the time frames that we need to sequester that carbon, trees won’t quite cut it,” says Gord. Indeed, 2015 saw managed
forests in Canada release 237 megatonnes of carbon emissions more than they sequestered, mainly through widespread wildfires. This was followed by 2017 and 2018, B.C.’s worst fire seasons on record.
If we can build back our soils, it’s a win-win, Gord says. Not only do healthy soils sequester carbon quicker than trees, but carbon-rich soils also hold more moisture, encouraging increased bacterial life, healthier crops, and a more drought-tolerant food system. Increased moisture may also hold back the forest fires that threaten to burn areas like the Bairds’ fir-tree graveyard. But Gord says industrial agriculture is currently working in the opposite direction when it comes to building soil, as the practice of tilling and exposing soils to direct sunlight releases carbon instead of sequestering it.
“If the sun has got the ability to hit the soil and increase the temperature of the soil then you’re going to have your microbes in your soil die back. And when those microbes die back, there’s a loss of carbon,” he says. “Every time you till it, you’re allowing too much oxygen into the soil, which is going to cause the oxidization of that carbon, and you’re going to have carbon that’s emitted from the soil.”
Not only does dying soil release carbon dioxide and thus exacerbate climate change, but, according to the August IPCC report, we are losing fertile soils globally 10 to 100 times more rapidly than they are forming. As soils are degraded into lifeless dirt, their food-growing abilities are compromised. And rebuilding a good soil—with its delicate organisms, networked structures, and nutrient compositions—can take centuries.
When it comes to building soils, however, the Bairds are also looking up—literally. Pointing to their roof, Gord explains how its undisturbed blanket of soil mitigates the effects of the increasingly erratic climate with some added bonuses. “Our living roof pre-filters our rainwater capture,” he says. “We grow food. It keeps the house cooler. It’s fire-resistant. It also keeps the solar panels cooler, which means we actually
generate more electricity.”
These sort of creative, multi-functional solutions that Ann and Gord are using and developing will ease climate change impacts. But the Bairds are hoping for a shift on a scale that fits the scope of the emergency. “Industrial agriculture [must begin] connecting the drops between climate change, soil carbon, and water waste,” says Gord.
SHADES OF GREY WATER
While Gord emphasizes how living soils are important for retaining water in times of summer drought, what about adapting our food systems to the wetter falls, winters, and springs that the CRD’s climate change predictions expect? Closer to the urban centre of Victoria, on Songhees and Esquimalt territory, Tayler Krawczyk, who runs the edible landscape design outfit Hatchet & Seed with his partner Solara Goldwynn, is seeing the effects of winter flooding first hand. After measuring the levels in his rainwater catchment system and chasing a chicken out of a garden bed, Krawczyk takes me over to a ditch filled with stones between his house and the garden. Last winter, he saw his whole backyard flooded, so he dug a rain garden. “I bet 150 years ago there was a stream running through
here,” he says.
“We also put in these big drainage pipes through here,” says Krawczyk, dusting off some wood chip mulch to reveal a plastic corrugated tube running underground beside the garden. “They provide a space for water to go and fill up rather than sit on the surface.” It’s a savvy solution for more than one problem. Beyond saving both the garden and house from winter flooding, the drainpipes are effortlessly repurposed during summer dry periods.
Krawczyk bends down and opens a hatch hidden among the rocks of the rainwater ditch. There’s water in it. “This is our bathtub water in here,” he says. “So water just comes out onto the chips and infiltrates in.” Walking back over to the drainpipe, Krawczyk tells me how their laundry machine also irrigates the channel under the garden bed. “I think that will be a big way that people bust drought—grey water.”
If Krawczyk can figure out how to water his garden and clean his clothes with one button, surely humans can kick climate change in the butt—right? Jokes aside, being wiser and more creative with our agricultural water use on small and large scales will be an important adaptation point. “On the whole, agricultural water use is on the rise on the southern Island,” says Krawczyk, who also sits on the CRD water advisory committee with Gord. “Some rural farms are no longer able to rely on wells and pond storage, as they were designed when late spring and summer rains were higher.”
Pictured: Solara Goldwynn and Tayler Krawczyk of Hatchet & Seed
Speaking with Gord, he tells me that while we’ve planned ahead in this region, demand will still continue. “We are exceptionally lucky that we have a glass of water up in the Sooke Hills,” he says, referring to the Sooke Reservoir, “but there are more and more straws that are going to be going into that glass of water.”
Mapping out changing water use has been a recent objective for B.C., Gord says, with the province just finishing a land-use inventory for the capital region. This inventory will help the CRD better understand how much water is being used for agriculture and where that water is coming from, whether it be municipal reservoirs, ponds, or wells. Gord hopes this will allow the CRD to be more equitable when divvying out the precious resource to consumers and agricultural producers.
The new inventory will also come in handy for an initiative Gord proposed to the CRD committee four years ago—to offer water subsidy incentives to food growers who use sustainable watering methods and soil strategies. The idea is just beginning to take hold now, and discussions will take place over the next year.
Krawczyk says that so far the CRD has made huge progress on water-use issues, largely sparked by warning signs from nearly
20 years ago. “The CRD’s integrated water services already had a big scare in 2001 when increased usage and summer drought caused water shortages and panic,” he says. “The Sooke Reservoir dam was raised the following year. More recently, they have acquired the Leech River watershed, further diversifying future sources.” For other communities in the region, adapting to drought, using water wisely, and improving storage will be key, he says, especially with the added consumption that comes with more agriculture, summer tourism, and population growth.
WHEN IN DROUGHT
Tiffany Joseph is the Indigenous food systems animator with ŚW̱,ȻENEṈITEL, an initiative which works to support Indigenous food literacy and sovereignty on southernVancouver Island. Joseph believes the land can also bust through drought on its own.
“One of the unique qualities of Coast Salish territory is that our territory can acclimate to drier conditions because we are in the rain shadow,” says Joseph. She is of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh First Nations, which have had a relationship with the land of southern Vancouver Island, the surrounding islands, and the Lower Mainland since time immemorial. Joseph says settlers would be better prepared to face the climate emergency if they took time to listen to the gifts of the land rather than focusing on its deficiencies, such as soil they might think is too dry. “They describe it as no good, as useless, basically,” she says.
“If you’re trying to grow potatoes or carrots in a place that’s supposed to grow camas and salmonberries and salal berries and all of our food, then, yeah, it’s going to seem like you can’t grow things here,” says Joseph. “If we actually grew the drought-tolerant native species, we could really thrive.” Joseph says we should be wary about trying to force the land to work for us. It’s this kind of mentality that is causing climate change in the first place, she says, and it’s the opposite that will help us avert it. “If we change our mindset to work for the land, to work alongside the land, to do what the land wants for itself, rather than try to change it for ourselves, then we would actually experience a lot more benefit.”
Working with the land is a lesson that Ann and Gord have been taking into practice at Eco-Sense. “It’s amazing how much food you can grow when you pick plants that are suited to the landscape,” says Ann. There are also some foods the Bairds favour that aren’t suited to the environment, but they’ve been able to grow them without being forceful. At Eco-Sense, Gord walks over to a plum tree. Upon closer look, I realize the plant is only a plum from the waist down: the top has lush grafted almond branches for arms. “People [think] that you can’t grow almonds because you need to have a lot of water,” he says. But when in drought, look for adapted rootstock—like the drought-tolerant mirabelle plum. Gord grafted the almond tree onto the plum roots just last year, and it’s already producing nuts. I look down to the base of the plum-almond tree, expecting to see a rich, moist soil. It’s literally growing on the Bairds’ gravel driveway, without any irrigation. I remember how my jaw dropped when I learned that California uses over 300 million litres of water annually to grow its almonds—or 10 percent of the entire state’s yearly water use. “What we’re doing is not rocket science,” says Ann. “Use mother nature as your architect, because nature’s got it figured out already.”
FRAGMENTED FOOD SECURITY
Failing to use nature as the architect has come at the expense of Indigenous food security, says Joseph. “[Settler society] paved over a lot of the ecosystems and watersheds,” she says. “Where Victoria is was a very significant watershed for the salmon runs, so that drastically impacted all those creeks where salmon used to run through.” “Our people have always said—and this is the freshwater people of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and the saltwater people of W̱SÁNEĆ—that there were so many fish in our waters that it looked like you could walk on their backs,” says Joseph. “Now you’re lucky if you can see a salmon jump.”
Recalling how Krawczyk sees the yearly return of a ghost creek that may have run through his neighborhood 150 years ago, the hidden layers of the landscape become apparent. It points to a bigger issue: how ecosystems in Coast Salish territory have been utterly fragmented by settler society, and how this has implications for the climate crisis. The IPCC report on land use shows these implications are twofold. When ecosystems are fragmented, their ability to mitigate climate change is reduced, while those same fragmented ecosystems are more susceptible to the extreme weather events, changing temperatures, and altered water flows of the climate crisis. In many cases, agriculture is a direct culprit. Take wetlands, for instance. The report warns that draining and fragmenting wetlands for watering crops leads to the release of more carbon emissions.
Joseph adds that intact seagrass ecosystems serve as an important carbon sink. Indeed, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that “coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows sequester and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests and are now being recognised for their role in mitigating climate change.” It adds that 83 percent of global carbon cycles through ocean environments. Beyond her work with ŚW̱,ȻENEṈITEL, Joseph works as a coordinator with the SṈIDȻEȽ Resiliency Project, which is attempting to restore a fragmented eelgrass meadow at Tod Inlet, near Brentwood Bay. This and other eelgrass meadows were and continue to be an important part of W̱SÁNEĆ food security.
Beyond the shore, Krawczyk contends that bringing agriculture into urban landscapes can reduce ecosystem fragmentation. Rather than damaging intact ecosystems to make way for food systems, growing food in cities adds ecological function to urban areas. “We replace energy-consumptive ornamental landscapes with food-bearing landscapes,” he says. “If you’re already going to use up energy and re-landscape your yard, why not put in a berry patch and a fig tree and vegetable boxes rather than just a magnolia and flowers and a lawn? It’s the same amount of work to set up and arguably not that much more to maintain.”
Integrating farming into cities can reduce carbon emissions as well, says Krawczyk. “It lowers the carbon footprint associated with distribution and it makes agriculture directly visible to city dwellers and food consumers.” Mason Street Farm and TOPSOIL are two local Victoria outfits that show agriculture can be viable in the city, he says. But with development ramping up in Victoria, it’s easier said than done. “The housing market is a real pain in the ass for urban agriculture,” Krawczyk says. “There’s so much economic pressure that every cubic inch in the city is being looked at by the developer hawks. When developers see a half-acre lot and see 30 micro-condos, each valued at $600,000, it’s hard for even a successful market gardener, who might make $80,000 off that half-acre.”
Even surrounding housing developments can affect food growers. A six-story development, for example, was just completed near Mason Street Farm. Because the sun is closer to the horizon in the winter months, the development will likely shade out the farm, hurting yields during the colder seasons.
According to Ann, this issue of development versus food points to the larger economic problem of how settler society values land. “The economic model is broken,” says Ann. “You have to maximize short-term financial gain from the land, and that’s just not compatible with what needs to happen.” Krawczyk agrees that financially capitalizing on land while undervaluing food is a key part of the problem. “There is just such a rush-rush, capitalistic economic push,” he says. “People in the current paradigm can still go to Costco and get relatively cheap food, and it’s easier.” Supporting local growers by buying their vegetables can go a long way in promoting sustainable agriculture, he adds.
While personal choices may collectively make an impact, shifting from the current paradigm requires a systems overhaul that goes beyond individual actions. That’s why Ann and Gord got into local politics—to use their knowledge to help create the systemic change needed for us to be resilient in the face of the climate emergency. “Lobbying for people and planet has a huge impact at the local level,” says Ann. “It’s our last hope: get involved in municipal politics.”
This can mean something as simple as showing up to town halls. “What happens at the council table is that the old cronies—the stuffy folks—will vote differently when there’s someone in the audience to watch them,” says Gord, who mentions Central Saanich’s recent climate emergency declaration as an example. “They voted against it until school kids came out and held them accountable.” As the Bairds’ trees perish before their eyes, Krawczyk’s garden floods one season and dries out the next, and Joseph thinks of her ancestral food systems covered by cement, they have every right to feel pessimistic and paralyzed. Yet they continue to act to mitigate the worst effects of the changing climate while preparing—or repairing—our region’s food systems for future challenges. “We have very limited time, if any, to turn the ship around. It’s not good,” says Ann. “Do you just wallow and cry? No. You just get busy because you have to do it, because it’s the right
thing to do.”
Article and photos by Mike Graeme