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'The future of agriculture': B.C. farmers, ranchers move to curb carbon emissions

As a rancher, nursery owner and farmer step toward a climate crisis, each has found their own set of solutions to reduce emissions and usher in a new era of food security.

High in the rolling foothills southwest of Merritt, B.C., Julia Smith saddles her horse a couple of hours after first light. 

By 8 a.m., she rides off her 8.5-hectare, off-grid ranch to meet a half dozen neighbours on horseback and round up cattle. It's a rhythm that has played out uninterrupted for over 100 years in this valley but one that has faced increasing pressure in recent years as wildfire, flooding and heat threaten ranchers’ livelihoods. 

Last summer, wildfire tore through the Bar FX Ranch, where Smith winters her cattle. 

“The whole thing burned up. It was devastating. They lost 20 per cent of their herd,” Smith said.

Then in November, historic floods rocked the town of Merritt, leading to the evacuation of 7,000 residents. Up the valley at the ranch, the rising water swallowed over six hectares. Like many nearby First Nation reserves, the land is just gone. 

“We’ve definitely been on the front lines of the effects of climate change,” Smith said. “As a community, we sure can't deny it.”

In 2021, the toll of extreme weather on B.C.'s farm animals and the food they produce was steep: roughly 1.3 million farm animals cooked to death during the June heat dome or drowned in the November floods. 

But where some see only loss, others see an opportunity to do things better. For ranchers like Smith, it’s a chance to build on thousands of years of human ingenuity to lower the industry’s carbon footprint, while building a more secure food supply that can withstand the shocks of climate change. 

From extreme weather to wildfire and drought, climate-driven disasters are increasingly pushing farmers in Canada to seek out new relationships with their land and the food they grow. 

That’s especially important as traditional sources of out-of-province fresh food, such as the western United States, face a confluence of drought not seen in 1,200 years and a growing wildfire crisis.

“We’re at the 11th hour,” said Kent Mullinix, director of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems. “We have been so remiss in curtailing GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, it is inevitable that many of these major food production areas around the world, including California, will face significant collapse.”

“California might not even be able to rely on California.”

A longtime advocate calling on B.C. to create a regional food system, Mullinix says if more small producers grow a bigger variety of food, the province will have a better chance of withstanding the shocks of a pandemic, drought and flooding. 

If several dozen farms fail, the reasoning goes, the system holds together. Meanwhile, food is sold directly to local consumers without a middleman taking a cut.

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