Seed Farmers for Climate Solutions

Posted on Thursday, 14 April 2022 under Supporting Farmers and Ranchers Feature

BC is home to a diversity of growing food products. This diversity all begins with seeds. Seed farmers play a vital role in the longevity and resilience of our local food systems. This includes the important role of local agriculture in climate change mitigation. Seed farmers adopt numerous climate change mitigation strategies similar to other agricultural sectors and face many challenges as they are affected by climate change and implement these strategies.

By merely saving seeds from year to year, farmers are contributing to climate-adapted varieties. - David Catzel Share on X

Climate change hits farmers hard. Simon Toole from Good Earth Farms is one farmer who faces many challenges due to our changing climate. Toole says, “As farmers, we are very much on the frontline, so we see how this is playing out faster than people realize. It’s stressful and hard on us as a group.” Crops become increasingly unreliable as the weather patterns change in extreme ways. Dan Jason from Salt Spring Seeds says, “It could be the heat, the cold, or the extreme variability in temperatures but it basically means that you can’t depend on crops.” Each year we witness more extreme climate variability, and farmers are forced to adapt quickly, but not without loss and great challenges.

Plants have an incredible ability to adapt to their environment and, if they survive, reproduce seeds that will carry on that adaptation. For example, seeds that were saved from plants that survived last year’s heat dome and flooding will demonstrate better adaptability to those weather conditions. David Catzel, BC Seed Security Program Manager, says, “Selecting seeds that perform in new challenging climatic situations is important. Trialling seed varieties can help inform farmers of the best-adapted varieties.” Every farmer can do this, especially if a crop fails due to bad weather.

Farmers can take devastation and use it to be more resilient for years to come. Catzel explains, “By merely saving seeds from year to year, farmers are contributing to climate-adapted varieties. Selecting seeds during challenging seasons, like the heat dome of 2021, helps varieties adapt to changing weather patterns. A bad harvest season due to weather means a great opportunity to select for specific pressures like drought. It may not produce a lot of seeds, but those produced will perform better in the future during seasons with similar climate pressures.”

By selecting seeds adapted to severe climatic situations, farmers may be able to water less and eliminate or reduce fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide inputs. Seeds learn from their environment and adapt fairly quickly to weather patterns, soil conditions, and local pests. Farmers increase their ability to adapt to climate change by saving seed that is dependable and will continue to adjust to their surroundings.

In addition to adaptation, farmers also work towards climate mitigation. Often, the strategies that farmers apply to adapt to harsh weather patterns result in a reduction in their impact. Catzel, explains, “In terms of seed production, farmers need to deal with the same issues as vegetable farmers would, which includes good soil management practices, minimum tilling, cover cropping and efficient use of resources like water.” These practices help farmers adapt to climate change and reduce the impact and emissions attributed to agriculture. Jason suggests, “Staggering plantings, diversifying the kinds of areas that you plant in and not putting all your eggs in one basket. Save seeds for future years to make sure that you have enough seeds put away for not just one year, but maybe many years.”

Some climate-friendly practices are difficult for seed farmers to implement. Cover cropping is a very common approach to building soil health and sinking carbon. Most seeds are harvested later in the season than other crops would be, making it difficult to establish a cover crop following the harvest. Jason says, “It’s a much more narrow window that requires more wise timing.” Challenging but not impossible. Siri Van Gruen from our Research and Education Seed Farm suggests intercropping as a way to establish a cover crop early underneath the existing seed crop. Van Gruen says, “By the time the plant is producing seed, it’s mostly taking energy from itself to go into that seed.” A cover crop introduced while the seed crop is growing would not affect the seed crop that no longer needs nutrients from the earth. Fall rye, clover, buckwheat, and fava beans are amongst the most popular cover crops for BC farmers. Clover and fava beans, in particular, have nitrogen-fixing qualities. Simon Toole from Good Earth Farms plants these two cover crops to reduce his impact. Toole says, “It reduces our fertilizer input, reducing our carbon footprint.”

A major component of producing seeds is waste. Van Gruen says, “The by-product of seed production is food, and a lot of times it’s not economically viable [for farmers] to save that food.” It is difficult for farmers to implement on-farm composting for a variety of reasons including pest attraction and additional labour. That being said, compost can be a great way to keep nutrients cycling on the farm and reduce waste-related emissions.

Fiona Hamersley Chambers from Metchosin Farm uses animals to deal with their waste. She runs a flock of about 100 laying birds for ten months of the year, throwing most of the seed by-products into the chicken run. “Animals are sometimes just the best way to combat a lot of that on-farm waste,” she says.

Chickens work the ground with their feet and spread manure, eating the by-product from seed harvests that would normally go in the compost. They are important contributions to regenerating nutrient-depleted areas and capturing carbon.

Photo by Metchosin Farm

Adaptation and mitigation to climate change are key strategies to the sustainability and security of seed production in BC. Without seed security, we don’t have food security. It is important for farmers to adopt climate-friendly farming practices and show leadership in reducing agriculture-related emissions. Making these adjustments and changes is a challenging but necessary undertaking. Toole says, “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we won’t be able to farm.” A simple and alarming truth of what’s to come without mitigation efforts. Catzel says, “Agriculture of any kind has a profound effect on the environment.” Seed farmers have been experiencing the effects of climate change for years and understand the urgency of mitigation efforts. Supporting each other and seeking out farmer to farmer learning is one of the best ways to adopt climate solutions. Toole says, “The more energy we put into mitigation and support each other to do these things, will end up having a lot of positive effects.”