Climate Solutions and Orchards

Posted on Monday, 9 August 2021 under Supporting Farmers and Ranchers

BC is home to a wide variety of orchards that grow numerous tree fruits like apples, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums. There are an estimated 800 tree fruit growers who tend 15,000 acres of agricultural land across the province. The majority of producers grow apples and or cherries. Tree fruit farmers are one of many groups of farmers and ranchers that can take action to reduce emissions in agriculture by adopting climate-friendly farming practices. Farmers can reduce GHG emissions, sequester carbon, and benefit the overall balance of their farms. These actions help build healthy, nutrient-rich soils and enhance biodiversity which significantly benefits farm ecosystems.

 

Orchards remain relatively untouched from deep tillage because perennial trees grow over long periods, storing carbon over years. This creates a good opportunity to experiment with cover crops in between the rows of trees Share on X

One of the many practices that benefit the climate and the productivity of a farm is the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. Theresa Loewen, a Master of Science graduate from UBC Okanagan specializing in Agroecology, studied how agroecological practices can be integrated into land management strategies. While mapping ecosystem services on agricultural lands in the Central Okanagan, Loewen worked with landowners to support them in implementing agroecological practices. Agroecology is an all-encompassing approach, taking into consideration the scientific, practical, and social aspects of land management. She says, “It’s about how we can integrate the values of nature and the economics of agriculture, and understand how we can best support landowners in implementing the practices that not only benefit the environment but can benefit agriculture too.”

Many orchards are adjacent to natural ecosystems. It is crucial, for both farmers and the climate, to retain the functionality of those ecosystems as much as possible. Loewen gives examples like, “Protecting and enhancing ecosystems where they might have been previously degraded by agriculture, for example, restoration of those areas to maintain their natural function and connectivity to the landscape.” She continues, “It’s really about working with the landscape and maintaining the functionality as an agro-ecosystem.”

Wetlands increase insect activity, provide active pollinators for fruit trees, increase nutrients around crops, and balance out the natural landscape to aid in pest control.

A challenge for many orchardists is fencing, a strategy to keep wildlife away from productive fruit trees. Loewen suggests a solution is to, “Create corridors for animals to pass through, especially if you need high deer fencing which can be prohibitive.” Corridors could be natural, such as hedgerows, or directive fencing to allow wildlife movement through the farm. This strategy allows farmers to protect their crops while maintaining connectivity for wildlife. In Loewen’s experience, many farmers who have problem wildlife, like deers and bears, will often account for the loss of part of their crop by allowing areas where those animals can feed. She says, “They are still getting what they want but the rest of the crop remains protected.”

Wetlands are a common natural ecosystem and are a problematic element for some orchardists because they can limit how much area is farmed. Though wetlands and streams may prohibit areas from being farmed, they offer a variety of services to farmers such as flood control, improved water quality, and increased carbon sequestration. Wetlands increase insect activity, provide active pollinators for fruit trees, increase nutrients around crops, and balance out the natural landscape to aid in pest control. Loewen says, “We want to encourage farmers to see the benefits of [wetlands] and work with them rather than eliminate them.”

Other important strategies to reduce emissions, maintain a natural landscape, and increase biodiversity include planting a variety of crops through increasing cultivar diversity, crop rotations, intercropping, mixing animals onto your orchard, planting cover crops and cash crops such as vegetables, and introducing natural buffers such as insectary flower strips, edge plantings, riparian buffers, and hedgerows. Orchards remain relatively untouched from deep tillage because perennial trees grow over long periods, storing carbon over years. This creates a good opportunity to experiment with cover crops in between the rows of trees. Loewen suggests, “Certain cover crop species can benefit the soil in different ways, like increasing specific nutrients, so you can choose species that help achieve certain goals and play around with a mix of what you plant.” Patrick and Sean at Curlew Orchard experiment with cover crops to find the right balance for their fruit trees. They plant micro clovers and seed them in between the trees, building up some of the typical orchard grass with more clover and diversity. This method helps their land handle the heat better and hosts a variety of beneficial insects. Regardless of the type of cover crop planted, anything is better than bare ground. “Exposed soil should be planted with some kind of cover to keep the soil healthy and prevent invasive species. For example, certain grasses may attract beneficial insects for the species you are trying to eliminate so instead of spraying for those species you could have natural pest management help with that,” says Loewen.

Martin Rothe at Martin and Jonathan Rothe Farm stopped planting cover crops many years ago to allow his green areas to grow wild. Over the years, clover, orchard grass, and fescue grass have mixed to create a diverse green pasture between his fruit trees. Rothe rarely mows this grass, another method Loewen suggests for farmers. She says, “You need to consider things like airflow and moisture which are important to monitor depending on what types of crops you have. This might be a deciding factor in what you choose to plant and the maintenance involved with those species. From a biodiversity standpoint, it’s best to let plants grow naturally as long as invasive species are controlled.”

Animals can play an important role in the diversity of a farm, in part, because they can do tasks that reduce the need for external inputs. Loewen says, “Some vineyards integrate sheep or chickens that are able to roam free, so rather than mowing their cover crops between the rows, the sheep do the work for them. Chickens help by eating pests and working the soil, which can be helpful.” The same strategy can be applied to orchards.  Farmers should still be aware of the guidelines around food safety in Canada. For food safe certification, application of manure must be 120 days before harvest. Animals deposit manure on a continual basis, so they would need to be removed before this pre-harvest interval.

The permanent nature of fruit trees means that orchards play an important role in climate change mitigation and orchardists demonstrate leadership as innovators in reducing agricultural emissions. The semi-permanent nature of trees means there is massive potential to store carbon on orchards for several years. Orchards in the Okanagan are under a lot of pressure right now with much of the interior farmland being converted to vineyards, which can be a higher profit sector. There is also pressure to integrate high-density plantings, resulting in a higher volume in a small area. Orchards, however, have huge potential to feed communities and contribute to emissions reductions in agriculture if they can be profitable. They remain an important part of BC’s food lands for both diversity in consumables and climate mitigation.