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Fields Of Learning

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Jason Lussier, a UBC masters students in the Soil, Water and Sustainability program, takes a soil sample at a grassland set-aside in Delta. Photo: Adrian MacNair

Contributed by Christine Terpsma

By walking through a grocery store or a farmers market, it is evident that agriculture is a big part of our local economy. Local potatoes can be readily purchased. Delta peas, carrots and beans are stocked in the freezer aisle. Blueberries are plentiful in the summer; cranberries in the fall. Local dairy production, and to a large extent greenhouse vegetables, can be found on shelves year ‘round.

These goods are a tangible reminder of the local farmland that largely shapes the character and business climate of our community. However, there are some aspects of farming that are not as easily viewed by the public eye. Some may be surprised to learn that Delta farmers, in addition to producing local food, also are at the forefront of some of the most cutting edge research on agricultural production.

For instance, farmers are currently collaborating with researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC), and a local non-profit organization, the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust (DF&WT), to refine best management practices for soil conservation. A management tool which has been used by Delta farmers for over two decades is DF&WT’s Grassland Set-aside (GLSA) Stewardship Program. Through this program, vegetable farmers sign up to sow a grass-legume seed mix into their fields and allow them to fallow for up to four years. Fallowing a field gives the grass-legume mix an opportunity to help re-build soil structure and fertility. In addition to taking care of the health of the soil, these fields also provide high-quality nesting and feeding habitat for numerous wildlife species. At the end of the four year period, farmers till in the vegetation and return the field to vegetable production.

Despite the successful implementation of GLSAs for over 20 years, farmers identified knowledge gaps which persist within the program, including questions regarding how quickly soil benefits build within a set-aside. Farmers also wanted to know how long soil benefits remain after a GLSA returns to production, and what effect GLSAs have on subsequent crop yields.

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Photo (from left): Khalil Walji, Jason Lussier and Christine Terpsma.

To address these knowledge gaps, Delta farmers agreed to allow DF&WT and researchers within the UBC Soil, Water and Sustainability group to study their GLSAs in Delta for the next five years. The study will evaluate soil productivity as a result of GLSA management, and is currently being carried out by two UBC Masters students, who are monitoring over 25 local fields.

One of the students, Jason Lussier, grew up in Tsawwassen and feels a strong connection to the project. “Studies have shown that seeding fields in GLSA can eliminate soil degradation,” remarks Jason. “.However, uncertainties persist surrounding the full extent of GLSA benefits to soils. We hope that our research will bring clarity to these uncertainties and provide farmers in Delta with some useful information on how to best utilize the program.”

Khalil Walji, another Masters student working on this project, agrees. “We are hoping to show that incorporating a GLSA into a farmer’s rotation can be beneficial for both soil health and crop yields,” explains Khalil.

The ultimate goal of the project is to provide farmers with the information they need to maximize long-term soil benefits. “When people pick up their produce, they often aren’t aware of what farmers are doing behind the scenes to ensure the health and productivity of local farmland,” remarks DF&WT Program Coordinator, Christine Terpsma. “The commitment of Delta farmers to facilitate research goes beyond benefits to their business. It’s a commitment to land stewardship for future generations. ”

This project was funded in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of B.C.

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