Agriculture near Site C: confronting mythology with facts

This blog is about evidence-based environmental decision making. I strive to present facts supported by references and emphasize the importance of using reliable data in decision-making. This is why I have spent so much time on the Site C Dam project, as many of the arguments against the dam have been built on a structure anecdotes, exaggeration and bad information. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the discussions around the agricultural potential of the Peace Valley and the spurious arguments about food security.

My last dive into this topic dealt with the now thoroughly debunked claim that the area to be flooded by Site C could feed 1 million people. This claim was started by a retired Professional Agrologist named Wendy Holm and was repeated by supporters and anti-Site C activists. Happily thanks to this blog and others like me Ms. Holm has backed down from her ridiculous claim. Rather Ms. Holm has become much more circumspect in her language. She no longer claims that the area flooded by Site Site C will feed 1 Million people instead she has adjusted her claim to:

this land is capable of producing sufficient vegetables to meet the nutritional needs of more than one million people a year, in perpetuity

The claim is based on a single, uncorroborated study written by a consultant in the 1980’s. Yes you read that right, a consultant wrote a non-peer reviewed report in the 1980’s and since that time no other researcher or other source has presented any details to support that claim. In real science, a claim is made and it is examined and studied and compared against real data but that is not how Ms. Holm works. She has taken a historic report she found that supported her general world-view and treated it like the word of god. She then used this uncorroborated assessment to extrapolate wildly (as I will discuss below) to come out with a fantastically inflated number that every anti-Site C activist seems to repeat like a Gospel. So let’s look at her claims a bit more closely.

Let’s start with her extrapolations. Ms. Holm, insists:

All 3,816 hectares of alluvial soils to be flooded are extremely high capability land (Class 1-3, improved ratings).

Juxtapose this with a  previous article in the Times Colonist: Reports of lost Site C farmland simply not true which states:

 the loss of valley bottom land with agricultural capability is closer to 3,800 ha, of which only 1,600 ha has actual potential. I would also point out that little of the land — less than 400 ha being flooded — was actually being cropped, and then mainly for forage, not food crops.

So the question arises how can they both be right? Well the answer is simple.  To help you visualize a kind researcher has posted a map of the area to be flooded. As you can see, much of the area to be flooded represents islands in the middle of the river that are inaccessible to industrial farming equipment. Yes the land is Class 1-3 but if you can’t access the land (because it is in the middle of the river) then it really doesn’t represent useful farmland. Mr. Anderson (author of the first article) only includes land that can actually be accessed with farm machinery, which makes sense if you plan on intensely farming an area. Ms. Holm has used the results of a GIS exercise that counted every square centimeter of land on every isolated little island in the middle of the river. This allows her to extrapolate wildly and few have called her to task on the subject.

So who should you trust on the topic? Ms. Holm’s supporters are quick to claim her expertise (she is a retired Agrologist) however it would appear Mr. Anderson has a wee bit of expertise in this area specifically:

James D. Anderson was director of farmland resources for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries from 1980 to 1985 and involved in the first environmental review and agricultural assessment done of Site C in 1982.

On the face of it I would argue that Mr. Anderson has a strong claim to be a credible voice on this topic. He was, after all, the gent in charge of the whole shebang the last time this assessment was carried out. It is funny how the activist who are fighting the dam continue to highlight Dr. Swain’s expertise as Chair of the Joint Review Panel but they give short-shrift to the man who actually was in charge of the Department when Ms. Holm’s famous vegetable study was written.

The next question arises: who is right about the potential of the land? Well the the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In 1980 a claim was made that the Peace Valley could serve as a vegetable Mecca let’s look how that prediction has that turned out? This being a blog that relies on data lets look at some data. Every 5 Years Statistics Canada does a Census of Agriculture, the results of which are posted online.  While the most recent census results are not yet reported, the results from 2006 and 2011 are online for the Peace River Regional District. Let’s see how the actual facts line up with the mythology being portrayed by Ms.Holm.

According to the Census of Agriculture, in 2006 there were 26 hectares (in the entire Peace Valley) dedicated to commercial growing of vegetables. By 2011 that number had jumped to ZERO….yes you read that right in this Mecca of vegetables there were no hectares dedicated to commercial  vegetables in 2011 in the entire Peace River Regional District. Not just the Site C-affected Valley bottom, but the entire Peace River Regional District. Almost 824,000 hectares of farmland area and none, nada, nil dedicated to the commercial growing of vegetables. Sure some backyard gardens certainly grew carrots and lettuce but no agricultural land was dedicated to vegetables. That represents a pretty reasonable debunking of Ms. Holm’s hypothesis.

Ms. Holm argues that much of the best land in the Valley has been reserved for the legal flood reserve since the 1950s. What this fails to note is that the Valley has been farmed since the 1920’s and no one bothered to set up a commercial vegetable patch in the first 30+ years the valley was farmed. Moreover, as Ms. Holm and Mr. Anderson point out there are 400 hectares of this prime land that is currently being farmed and yet in 2011 exactly none of it was used for vegetables, rather the 26 hectares that were being farmed in 2006 had stopped being used for the purpose.

Let’s be absolutely clear here, Ms. Holm insists that Site C is so important because it represents most of the Class 1-2 land in the valley except according to the people who actually track this information the Peace River Regional District has over 5,000 hectares of Class 1 soils and almost 121,000 hectares of Class 2 soils. This means that literally thousands of hectares of Class 1 soils exist outside the legal flood reserve and would, under Ms. Holm’s hypothesis, represent ideal locations for vegetables and fruits. Yet, as the statistics demonstrate none of those thousands of hectares are being used to grow fruits or vegetables, Moreover, over 100,000 Hectares of Class 2 soils exist in the Peace Valley Regional District which would supply ample space for the needed growing area under a climate change scenario.

Now this seems a bit strange. Ms. Holm claims that the Peace Valley is the ideal location to grow vegetables and the entire farming community of the Peace Valley disagrees with her. In science we call that testing a hypothesis. A hypothesis was proposed in 1980 that the Peace Valley would be an excellent location for vegetables. Farmers tried it out and ultimately stopped growing vegetables sticking instead with grains and forage. That is a pretty definitive debunking of that hypothesis.

As a further note,  in her most recent letter to the Editor in the Times Colonist Ms. Holm expanded her repertoire of crops to include fruits, which she mentioned three times. Anyone care to guess how many hectares in the entire Peace Valley Regional District were dedicated to commercial fruit production? If you guessed zero in both 2006 and 2011 you would be right. It is almost as if farmers have more sense than to risk their livelihood on tree fruit and vegetable crops that are susceptible to frost. That far north an early/late frost can destroy an entire crop so farmers have decided to avoid those crops.

As this post is getting long (and it is getting late) I want to briefly touch on a final topic of  mythology being put forward by the anti-Site C activists. That we need to preserve the flood plain affected by the Site C dam for food security purposes.  According to the official numbers the Site C Dam will flood approximately 0.4% of the agricultural land in the Peace District or 0.2% of the agricultural land in BC. Doesn’t this put these food security arguments into perspective? It is ridiculous to claim that the flooding of the land required for Site C will put our food security at risk? We currently have almost 2 million hectares of ALR that we aren’t even bothering to farm (including 426,000 in the Peace District) and the activists claim we will go hungry if we flood around 5,000 hectares of it in the Peace?

Moreover, when it comes to the production of fruit and vegetables we don’t necessarily need to depend on Class 1-3 lands in the north because I have a secret to tell you. Our future food security in BC for fruit and vegetables is actually going to come from greenhouses. Anyone who has been to my neck of the woods has seen the greenhouse  industry springing up left, right and center. They are able to produce incredible quality produce from lands of all classes (even commercial and former industrial lands). As for the question: where is the soil going to come from for use in the greenhouses? Well that would be municipal organics management and composting. Composting facilities in the lower mainland are producing more high-quality organic soils than we know what to do with. Access to good soil will not be the limiting factor in the growth of the greenhouse vegetable industry.

Now let’s look at how greenhousing has flourished in the last decade. Going back to the Agricultural Census let’s look at the Metro Vancouver stats: Greenhouse space for vegetable production almost quadrupled from 1996 to 2011 from 500,000 mto 1.8 million m2 . Our food security for vegetables in British Columbia is not dependent on a small portion of a northern valley prone to unexpected frosts but rather to using the resources we have at hand (agricultural land and green-housing technologies) far closer to vast majority of consumers in the Lower Mainland. The Peace Valley, meanwhile, will retain its characteristics as our bread basket and can do that with Site C in place.

To conclude, our food security is not at stake from building Site C, rather the energy produced by Site C will help provide clean power to greenhouses that can produce higher yields closer to the population base of our province. Unlike the oft-repeated claims from Ms. Holm the Peace Valley is not a fruit and vegetable Mecca, rather commercial fruit growers have avoided the area for the last 100 years while the few farms that tried out vegetables have abandoned the effort. Put simply, just because Ms. Holm and the anti-Site C activists keep repeating a myth doesn’t make it any more real. The data make it clear that her fabulous report from 1980 was simply a case of wishful thinking and combined with political activism has created a mythos that desperately needs to be exposed to the light of evidence-based decision-making.



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15 Responses to Agriculture near Site C: confronting mythology with facts

  1. Bob Jones says:

    Another superb article…missed you …keep up the good work.


  2. robert stathers says:

    Hmmm, ultracrepidarianism at its finest. You are way out of your depth on this topic and sounding much like an activist. First off, I feel that site C should be built, we will need the electricity in the not too distant future. In all projects like this there are tradeoffs, costs and benefits. As Wendy Holm points out, one of the costs is a loss of good productive Class 1 agricultural land and the resultant effect on our food security. This is off your radar because you have never had an empty tummy or experienced no food in your grocery store. You aren’t going to be eating insecure food at the same price that you enjoy today. In fact, in a crisis urbanites in BC will be lucky to get any food, especially in February. Recall how the border closed for a few days to all imports, including food, during the little 911 crisis.
    The important intangible that Wendy alludes to is that you can chip away at the ALR and it might not show any impact at present. But if you look at what we’ve chipped away in the Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley, and SE Vancouver Island you might be quite surprised at the impact on food security some 25 years from now. Keep chipping away at the farmers and you also won’t have the expertise to grow food. That outlines a shrinking supply side. On the demand side, increase the population in the lower mainland by a few million and the situation becomes even more tenuous during a crisis. You and your family have to decide how important food security is. Perhaps you should sit down and really think about it for an hour or two.
    By the way, I’m also a retired P.Ag like Wendy, but I’ve also been a farmer for more than 30 years and this year my farm produced more than 150 tons of fruit, vegetables, honey, and eggs. I worked near the Peace River one summer and know the value of class 1 land there. In a warming world that is becoming more crowded with hungry mouths, that land is becoming increasingly valuable for crop production. It might not be now, but it is an important ace in the hole for food security in BC. I’m not talking about a few tomatoes and peppers from greenhouses here, I’m talking about survival food: potatoes, carrots, beets – thousands and thousands of acres of them. Glasshouses without natural gas and electricy are not a great contingency plan for feeding millions of people all year long. Maybe in Disneyland where there is pixiedust, but not down here on planet earth. Sorry, that’s just the hard truth, coming from a guy who’s done it for a long time.
    Perhaps what I am alluding to is that if we allocate the Site C land to a reservoir, then we should be more prepared to protect our remaining class 1 land and its farmers to compensate for the loss. The fragility of our food production system is a difficult concept to grasp for people who think that food comes from large retail stores, people who have never been hungry or had to worry about where their next meal might come from…

    Bob, the dum farmer


    • Blair says:

      Bob, your attempt to sound intelligent simply turns people off as does your imaginings that the rest of us are not as smart as you or your imaginings about my personal life story. Don’t try because you don’t have a clue what I grew up with and your pretending you have a clue does not become you.

      The reality is that the relatively tiny portion of land to be flooded will have no significant effect on our food security. Anyone with half of your intelligence can figure this out for themselves. If the Province heats up in the manner you suggest then a whole lot of land that is currently not available for those crops will become available but we are talking about a tiny percentage of the growing area in the Peace and it will not be the make or break land for our communal survival.


    • Chester Draws says:

      In a warming world that is becoming more crowded with hungry mouths,

      The amount of land devoted to agriculture world-wide is dropping. Yes, and Canada.

      We will not run out of land. We might run out of energy.

      But apparently the ideas of Malthus will not die, because people refuse to believe even when explained to them.

      Glasshouses without natural gas and electricy are not a great contingency plan

      Most NZ glasshouses use precious little energy. That’s pretty much the point of glasshouses.

      They certainly use far less energy than the equivalent outdoor farming.


  3. Doug MacKenzie says:

    Blair, I always find on doing some fact checking searches, that your numbers are verifiable, and those you claim to be out to lunch, are truly out to lunch. Keep up the good work.


  4. Really enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up and I’ll keep sharing it. First rate stuff.


  5. Jeff Norman says:

    Let’s imagine for a moment that at some point in the near distant future farmland becomes more important than than electricity in British Columbia. What is to prevent those future people from draining the Site C reservoir to reveal those sunken jewels of potential farmland? Might not those jewels be polished by years of sedimentation caused by the slowed flows that might retain some of that biological fallout?


  6. Carsten Schuett says:

    I am living in the FSJ area for over 30 years and following this subject for quite some time.
    I reviewed the articles and presentations from Wendy Holm and cannot find any calculations
    from her how she came up with the numbers to support the claim of providing the “nutritional needs of 1 million people”. The claim was originally “vegetables for 1 million people” but the story line got changed over time. Everything points back in her presentations to the original BC Hydro report from the 1980’s where somebody made a claim of having the “potential” of feeding over
    300,000 people (not the exact number / don’t have the report in front of me / at the end of the report) . The report also has no example how they came up with the number either. I came to the conclusion that she just took the number out of the report and multiplied it with her 5000 ha number. Here is a link to the 1965 BC Soil Survey that should the basis for all discussions.
    I had discussions with anti Site C activists to get their data. It is always getting very emotional
    once myth is getting challenge with facts. Is it 5,000ha or only 1,666 ha or only 541 ha or even less. People in Asia would swim over to the islands in the river to farm them. My simple calculation is 5,000 ha X 10,000 square meter divided by 1,000,000 people = 50 square meter per person to grow nutrition for a year. I have a degree in agriculture and finance but I admit it is out of my expertise so I looked on the internet on extreme survival and prepper sites that came up with a range of 100 square meters (part of it green house) 3 crops per year to 700 square meters.
    Since we still have some years until the area is flooded I encourage Mrs Holm and her following to start growing the required nutrients on 50 square meter for themselves and live of the produce.
    My guess is that by Christmas of that year the myth will have died together with its supporters.


  7. Leigh Phillips says:

    Did you spot that 15 out of the 16 technical presenters invited by the panel to appear are opponents of Site C? And not a single climate policy expert. (page 38)


  8. Pingback: FACT CHECK: The Truth About Site C - The ICBA Independent

  9. Pingback: FACT CHECK: Busting the Myths Around Site C - The ICBA Independent

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