The Kootenays will never be the most productive agricultural zone in Canada, but Rachael Roussin sees potential for the region to be a leader in carbon sequestration and climate resilient farming.
The coordinator for the Kootenay & Boundary Farm Advisors (KBFA), Rachael is passionate about agriculture in the mountains, climate change solutions, and helping Kootenay farmers move toward a different paradigm for food production
“The ecological option is eating close to home. Kootenay famers have the ability to do this in a sustainable way that’s good for ecosystems and good for wildlife,” she said. “There’s so much diversity within a small area. Different climatic zones will help us stay resilient.”
Rachael has over 15 years’ experience coordinating environmental and agricultural programs and her technical background includes soil science, soil capability for agriculture, watershed management and climate change impacts for agriculture. She is an Environmental Farm Plan Advisor and holds a Masters’ degree in Land and Water Systems from the faculty of Land and Food at UBC.
“Although KBFA is focused on technical production, underlaying technical production is sustainable agriculture. Because you can’t have ongoing productivity without sustainable production practices. And I would say that every farmer we work with, whether conventional or certified organic, is sustainability-minded.”
A taxpayer-funded extension program, the KBFA provides producers with free, technical production support and information from a network of specialized resources, including independent consultants and academics. When a farmer contacts KBFA, they are put in touch with a general advisor, Rachael being one of four – two in the East Kootenay and two in the West. A conversation then takes place, usually through a farm visit, and for any issues that come up, if they can’t be resolved within the KBFA team, the farmer is then referred to an expert advisor for solutions.
“The list of expert advisors is growing as issues arise so it’s not a stagnant list. Basically, as people come to us with issues, if we don’t have an advisor to address any issue, we go looking for one,” said Rachael. “If they come with a dollar figure, we pay for them up to two hours as a consultation fee. But a lot of the time their services are free because they’re either working for academia or research stations and they’re more than happy to extend their information.”
Managed by Keefer Ecological Services, KBFA is Funded in equal amounts by the Regional District of East Kootenay, the Regional District of Central Kootenay, the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary and the Columbia Basin Trust. All three regional districts support agricultural extension — formerly a function of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture — in their Agriculture Plans.
“A huge kudos to our local governments who have stepped up in lieu of the fact that the provincial government cut agricultural extension and still want to implement their agricultural area plans. It’s something the more experienced farmers remember and missed,” said Rachael. “The US has very robust extension services program so we often look to the States for inspiration.”
According to the 2016 census, there are 1,200 farms with farm status in the KBFA service area, and KBFA has worked with 570 of them since its inception in 2017. In addition to the one-to-one support, KBFA holds regular workshops and is engaged in applied farm research in order to look for solutions and best practices at the local level.
“To really drum it down, I like to say we focus on soil and water management, because everything relates back to soil and water management when we’re talking about agriculture in our area. Soil conservation globally is one of the biggest conservation issues we’re facing.”
The small-scale intensive agriculture of the Kootenays presents inherent challenges when it comes to balancing profitability and production, yet Rachael sees a lot of responsibility on the part of farmers when it comes to wildlife issues, awareness of the natural ecosystems that sustain their land, and a desire to adapt to climate change.
“The Stewardship Solutions Toolkit has been a fantastic resource,” she said. “We bring that to every farm and give it to the farmers, and let them know that sometimes there are incentives to do some restoration projects on their land or just provide that layer of education and information.”
KBFA always recommends farmers to develop an Environmental Farm Plan, a process that requires just a half-day commitment and involves a one-on-one consult with an advisor. Environmental Farm Plans are free and give farmers tools to manage ecological resources on their farm.
“The Kootenays are the dream landscape for agriculture and ecology to work together,” she said. “The farmers that we work with are super stewards of their land because they always have the long term vision in mind.”