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Kailee Hirsche installs a low tunnel at UBC Farm.

New research aims to help B.C. farmers adapt to climate change

This year’s cold, damp spring and extremely dry summer are part of an ongoing pattern of worldwide change

By Omri Wallach and Said Abugattas , in City Feature story , on October 25, 2017

A research project at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver is exploring new ways to help B.C. farmers protect their crops from problems being caused by climate change.

The project, run by the university’s faculty of land and food systems, is timely for local farmers as data shows that this year’s cold, damp spring and extremely dry summer are part of an ongoing pattern of worldwide change also affecting the Lower Mainland.

Andrew Black, a professor of applied biology at UBC, has a team looking at different types of plastic film mulches and low tunnels, covers that act as mini-greenhouses.

“The tunnels not only protect plants from frost damage, but they also warm the microclimate of plants during the daytime,” explained Black. The mulches are important for keeping the roots and new buds safe from water evaporation.

His team is also assessing methods to protect crops from hostile conditions in the spring, as farmers are responding to climate change by shifting work to earlier in the year.

Climate change’s effects on B.C.

According to the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, the recent trends in seasonal weather will continue to strengthen in the Lower Mainland as average temperatures will increase by two degrees over the next 30 years.

Although the rising temperatures are expanding the growing season, Siddhartho Paul, a PhD candidate from the faculty of land and food systems at UBC, noted that workable field days are declining because of increased numbers of violent rainstorms.

Black’s project aims to take advantage of the longer season by providing stable conditions. More efficient technology could also help farmers plan more rationally for the future, instead of constantly coming up with short-term solutions.

Andrew Black stands in his office at the faculty of land and food systems at UBC.

From research project to field practice

The province is hoping that projects like Black’s, which address present problems as well as future, are embraced by its farmers. While mulches and low tunnels have already seen extensive use in the province, his team is comparing the effectiveness of many different types of plastics.

Black said his team is looking at new plastics being developed that have attributes similar to glass. Compared to the industry standard, polyethylene, the new plastics are extremely efficient at retaining heat during the night.

But there is worry that farmers won’t be quick to adopt the project’s recommendations.

A report this summer by the B.C. Agriculture & Food Climate Initiative Action raised concerns about farms reacting too slowly to climate change. When assessing drainage, for example, the report found that recent improvements to farm drainage systems were primarily short-term solutions that may not be effective in the future.