Business Climate: How drought is changing B.C.’s agriculture industry

Our agriculture industry appears to be thirsty for change after spells of drought

For B.C. cattle ranchers, last summer’s dry spell hit hard. By mid-September, more than 80 percent of B.C.’s water basins were experiencing level 4 or 5 drought, which, according to the provincial government, means “adverse impacts to socio-economic or ecosystem values are almost certain.”

But third-generation Okanagan Falls rancher Brian Thomas didn’t need a government scale to tell him that. As president of the BC Cattlemen’s Association, he was watching a slow-moving disaster play out on the ground. Following a low snowpack and little rain, pastures across the province were drying up, leaving cattle with too little to eat. Many ranchers were forced to buy feed months sooner than they normally would, even trucking hay up from Washington and Oregon.

Brian Thomas and friend
Brian Thomas saw his Okanagan Falls ranch hit a devastating dry spell last year

“They kind of saved us,” remembers Thomas. “But the transport fee on the hay cost more than the hay itself.” For many, the skyrocketing costs of feed—and, in some cases, the need to move entire herds—weighed too heavily, and the number of cattle that went to market was roughly 50,000 higher than the year before. Thomas has irrigation on his ranch, so he wasn’t as hard hit; still, he’s feeling the pressure.

“I went to my accountant and he asked, ‘What’s your financial goal?’” remembers Thomas with a wry laugh. “And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to break even.’”

Last year’s drought didn’t end with the turn of the calendar. As of February 1, the provincial snowpack was “extremely low”—39 percent below normal—with nine snow stations measuring all-time lows. A monthly bulletin from the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship warned that the low snow levels and seasonal runoff forecasts, along with a warmer seasonal outlook and the lingering effects of last year’s drought, “are creating significantly elevated drought hazards for this upcoming spring and summer.”

Mark Raymond, executive director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s Extension and Support Services Branch, says that because of last year’s drought, perennials were already weakened heading into winter and, for many, another dry season could mean a knockout punch. Growers who have irrigation are managing, but those who don’t—mostly in central and northern B.C.—are facing a torrent of tough choices.

The B.C. government has launched several initiatives, including a $20-million water infrastructure program and a workshop series focused on efficient irrigation and other farming practices that help retain soil moisture. Raymond also points to the AgriRecovery program, which helped -farmers and ranchers cover extraordinary costs incurred by last year’s drought.

At the same time, more growers are investing in irrigation. But what happens when the water for irrigation systems starts to dry up? “That’s the question on everybody’s mind right now,” he says. “And we’re going to need to work together to be more efficient in our water use across the province.”

Sean Smukler, director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm, says the shifting climate has put drought on the agriculture sector’s radar in a way it’s never been before—to the point where even Fraser Valley farmers, who used to be able to count on snowpack and rain, are having to invest in pricey irrigation systems.

UBC Farm’s Sean Smukler
UBC Farm’s Sean Smukler says the climate crisis is having a huge impact on agriculture
Photo by Martin Dee

But the real infusion, he argues, needs to come from governments—and fast. Water storage and conveyance systems are critical, says Smukler, as are the preservation and restoration of forests, wetlands, grasslands and other natural systems that recharge the province’s aquifers. “Much of our water resource sits below the ground, so the more we can slow that rainfall, capture it in our mountains and get it to trickle back into the ground, the more we can store it for later on.”

On the demand side, Smukler says the province needs to continue educating growers on reducing water use through practices like precision irrigation, water sensor technology and a better understanding of crops’ moisture needs.

“My biggest concern is the mobilization needed to happen, like, 10 years ago,” says Smukler, who points to the fact that, during the pandemic and the Fraser Valley floods of 2021, B.C. consumers got their first taste of empty grocery shelves. “If we’re really serious about building local food systems, and building our food sovereignty, we need to deal with the water supply and demand situation.”

Brian Thomas agrees. The long-time rancher has been encouraged by the government’s drought response, but he wants to see more investment in small dams and water storage infrastructure, as well as the preservation of Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land.

“One of the things I’d like to see is like a land reserve, but an agricultural water reserve,” he says. If we don’t do a better job of managing our water, he warns, B.C. ranchers and other farmers may be forced to rethink what they grow—and consumers may bear the brunt.

“Some people think, ‘Why do we need an agricultural industry in British Columbia? Why don’t we just get our food from Mexico, or wherever?’ But man, that is a great way to be held hostage,” says Thomas, who inherited his ranch from his grandfather and father, and hopes to pass it down to his kids and grandkids. “We have to get to where we are more self-sufficient.”