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UNBC farm study hopes to boost profits through crop diversity

Can diversifying crops make farming more profitable and more environmentally friendly?

A team of UNBC researchers, in partnership with the Nak’azdli Whut’en and a Nechako Valley farm, are trying to answer that question. The Bioenergy and Cash Crop Feasibility Study, funded with an $83,5000 grant from the federal and provincial governments, will look at how adding new crops to the region’s agriculture could help local farmers.

Dr. Steve Helle is an environmental engineer and an Associate professor with UNBC. He’s leading the research team through the first phase of the project – a feasibility study.

“We’re going to be doing soil analysis, climate analysis of our plots of land that Little Valley Farms and Nak’azdli First Nations have dedicated to this project, looking at a whole range of crops and seeing what’s suitable for growing.”

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This initial phase should be complete by this winter. Lavender, echinacea, quinoa and ginseng are all candidates, as are biofuel crops, including grasses and hemp.

The second phase will take place next spring.

“If we’re successful in this first phase, it leads into the second phase where we’re actually going to be out in the fields, doing trials of these crops and seeing how well they grow. Seeing how well the equipment and infrastructure available works for growing them, harvesting them, processing them.”

Helle and his team will also try to factor anticipated changes to the climate into their study. These could include increased temperatures and spring runoff and less water availability during the summer.

Helle says they’re aiming to supplement, not replace, crops currently being grown.

“We’re looking at land that’s not currently being utilized for cattle or hay or other crops. What can be grown on the marginal or underutilized land in the region that can help boost income or diversify the crops that the local farms can grow.

Darlene Turner is a part owner of Little Valley Farms, a 4th generation operation covering 6,000 acres. Turner says they raise alfalfa, grain and cattle and worry about how the next generation will make a living in agriculture.

“Dad’s generation is starting to retire and sell their farms and it’s very hard for youth to purchase farms, the capital investment is so high. So we’re trying to find ways to make farming more profitable so that we can get youth involved.”

She’s says the ability to diversify and use land that’s not currently being cultivated could be a big boost, not just for Little Valley but for the entire region.

“We know that any of the results that come out of the project can be used by other farmers. The reports will be open for other farmers to look at and for the region as a whole.”

It will be a while before the study begins to bear fruit. Helle says some of the crops being considered need two years to mature. The study will likely run for 3-4 years before reaching any conclusions.

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