A few weeks ago, I spoke with Christine Schmalz, Director of the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust (DF&WT). As a resident of Delta, it was great to learn more about agriculture preservation in my own backyard. Here is what I learned!
Jeff: Welcome, Christine. Can you please tell me about the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust?
Christine: Thanks, Jeff! Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust (DF&WT) is a non-profit organization that promotes the preservation of farmland and wildlife habitat. We work in the Fraser River estuary of British Columbia and focus on cooperative land stewardship with local farmers. In 1993 when DFWT was founded, there was a perception that conservation and agriculture had opposing goals and that it would be difficult for farmers and conservationists to work together. That’s changed, and now thirty years later, it’s clear that resident and migratory wildlife rely heavily on farmland for habitat, and the marriage between these two fields is very effective.
Jeff: Can you explain what cooperative land stewardship means and provide some examples? Why is it important?
Christine: Cooperative land stewardship means supporting wildlife by sharing the cost of on-farm habitat and soil health projects with farmers. The costs associated with some regenerative practices can be prohibitive for farmers if support is not available, particularly in Delta, where wildlife pressures are significant. For example, one of our programs pays farmers an annual fee to pause production on select fields and temporarily convert them into grassland habitat. Grassland fields support significant vole species (small rodents), the primary food source for many hawks, owls, eagles, and great blue herons. Grasslands also provide nest sites for Savana Sparrows and other songbirds. These fields mimic the natural habitat that would have been present in Delta over 100 years ago. Incorporating grasslands into a crop rotation is highly beneficial for soil health. But given that the region has some of the highest land rental rates in the country, it would be too expensive for farmers for any length of time if financial support was not available. Cost-sharing allows more farmers to participate in programs that directly benefit soil health and wildlife.
Jeff: Which stewardship program is the most popular and why? Which is the most important to the health of Delta farmlands?
Christine: Two of the oldest programs, Winter Cover Crops, and Grassland Set-Asides, continue to be popular with farmers and provide significant foraging and nesting benefits for wildlife. Winter cover crops planted on harvested fields reduce soil loss due to water erosion and improve soil infiltration. Rainwater can then move through the soil instead of running off, and the ground can hold the water long enough for plants and organisms to benefit from it. Cover crops ultimately result in cleaner water reaching our streams and ocean. This regenerative practice also adds organic matter to the soil and is a primary focus for climate mitigation, as plants absorb and store carbon within the soil.
The Grassland Set-Aside program (GLSA) supports farmers who take fields out of annual production for one to four years and plant them with native grasses. GLSA fields enhance the soil’s organic matter and provide excellent habitat for foraging and nesting wildlife. Wildlife in Delta and surrounding areas have become increasingly dependent on farmland to provide foraging and resting opportunities and sites for ground-nesting birds. The availability of open green space and even waterfront has declined significantly. Waterfowl, like geese, ducks and widgen, rely on farm fields for food and overnight rest. Cover crops offer another benefit, they act as a lure to waterfowl, providing a food source that is far less costly when heavily grazed than forage fields grown for animal feed.
Jeff: DF&WT provides research to increase the understanding of the habitat needs of wildlife in the lower Fraser River delta. How is the data used? Do you partner with other scientists for research purposes?
Christine: DF&WT works closely with conservation groups and researchers to share findings. We also partner with organizations studying similar species to share results and prevent duplication of efforts. DF&WT is unique because we work solely on actively farmed landscapes. As a result, our data sets complement broader research.
Each year, our full-time Field Technician studies how waterfowl and raptors use Grassland Set-Asides and Winter Cover Crops throughout the estuary from October to March. This process provides valuable information on the populations of these birds within enrolled fields over time. In 2022 we initiated three new research studies. The first is focused on how grassland breeding birds use Grassland Set-Asides within spring months to nest and reproduce. The second study involves the use of technology to better understand the movements of geese.
Jeff: What research projects do you currently have underway?
Christine: DF&WT is currently partnering with the University of British Columbia (UBC) in a multi-year study assessing the impact of hedgerows and grassland set-asides on beneficial insects and pests. The study includes an experiment with planting floral strips to support native pollinators alongside blueberry fields. Early results show that hedgerows planted with various flowering species are visited more frequently and that bumble bees prefer native plants to weed species. In addition, GLSAs planted with floral resources are visited more frequently by pollinators. Beneficial insects and native pollinators require varied habitats and diverse floral resources available throughout the growing season. For blueberry growers, pollination is directly connected to yield. Most growers rely on non-native honey bees, whose hives are shipped in to pollinate flowering blueberries at a significant cost. This research explores the benefits of native flowering plants when it comes to overall farm management.
Jeff: Can you elaborate on the internationally important farmland and wildlife resources in the Fraser River delta?
Christine: The Fraser River delta has some of the most productive farmland in BC. This area is known for vegetables, berries, dairy cattle, poultry, and more. In addition to growing for export, Delta farmers produce more than 50% of the potatoes consumed in BC. Delta is also known internationally for blueberries which have become a significant export for the region. Farmland for food production is essential, and the past two years clearly demonstrated the challenges associated with reliance on imported food. Having a sustainable agricultural base close to home supports our economy and reduces our dependence on imports.
In terms of wildlife, the Fraser River delta is considered Canada’s top Important Bird Area, with 15 species that are of global and continental importance. It is a critical stopover on the pacific flyway, with over five million migratory birds passing through this area each year. The pacific flyway is the north-south migratory route from Alaska to Patagonia in South America. Many migrating birds will stop in our area to feed and rest on their way to summer breeding grounds or their winter habitat. Our greenspaces, wetlands, and agricultural lands provide the foraging and resting sites needed to make migratory trips of up to 6,000 km.
Snow Geese will move from northern climates down to Delta to overwinter, relying on wetlands, green space and agricultural lands. When migrating Snow Geese arrive, the region becomes a wildlife photographer’s paradise, as large flocks of birds can be viewed regularly.
Jeff: Does DF&WT host events for the public?
Christine: Outreach is a critical component of our mandate. We have hosted Day at the Farm in partnership with the Westham Island Herb Farm for 14 years. This annual free event is a community favourite. In 2022 we welcomed an estimated 5,000 people to the day’s festivities. By inviting attendees to an active working farm and connecting visitors with farmers to talk about food production and conservation issues, we hope to provide insight into what makes the region so unique and give people a hands-on understanding of how food grows.
Jeff: How does DF&WT generate funding to support stewardship programs?
Christine: Our organization is a non-profit and applies for funding each year from various granting sources to undertake stewardship programs. We receive funds from federal, provincial, municipal, and non-profit sources. We partner closely with groups like Environment and Climate Change Canada and Ducks Unlimited which are focused on habitat benefits. These partnerships ensure our actions are aligned with the priorities for species at risk and migratory waterfowl. We also work closely with farmers so that our programs are agronomically effective and appropriate for the farming community.
Jeff: Lastly, how can the citizens of South Delta help your organization in its stewardship efforts?
Christine: Preserving farmland to grow high-quality fresh food is essential, but maintaining these landscapes is not easy when we live in an urban area surrounded by farmland. People need housing and infrastructure to enhance their day-to-day lives, and farmland can seem like an attractive option because of the proximity to the city and how easily it can be developed. However, we can’t afford to build on our farmland, it’s too important to us both in terms of food production and wildlife habitat. Everyone can support local agriculture by choosing BC products first. We also encourage people to support local farms by visiting farm stands for fresh produce and locally grown and produced foods. And lastly, as a non-profit, we rely on support to continue this work. Every dollar counts, and we are extremely grateful to those who donate to support soil health and wildlife in the estuary.
Jeff: Thanks so much, Christine. I definitely learned a lot about the challenges farmers are facing in my community and how the DF&WT is helping. I appreciate your time!
If you want to donate or learn more about the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, here is their contact information:
Address: 205 - 4882 Delta Street, Delta, BC, V4K 2T8