Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Organic Does Not Mean Compassionate to Some Small Farmers

Comment: Deer cull part of creating a healthy food system

The current discussion on deer populations has raised questions about how organic farmers deal with this problem.
Certified organic means living in balance with nature. It means caring for the soil, fostering environments for pollinators and beneficial insects and choosing plants that do best in our ecosystem. When balance can’t be achieved though cultivation practices, it also means reducing pest populations using the least ecologically harmful means available.
We do kill deer. We fence first, and we have spent more than $20,000 fencing our properties with industry-standard fencing. We spend hundreds of hours combing the fence lines, repairing where the deer have broken through and shoring up where the land has eroded or compromised the security of the fence line. We do this religiously, and we do this first, because it is the easiest option.
Fencing sounds simple, but the nature of deer make it a hard task. Populations of deer around our farms have increased a great deal in the 15 years we have been farming in the area. There are few  predators (cougars and bears) left in this region, so deer populations are not kept in check. As they get hungry, they become persistent. They squeeze through gaps in fences that are a few centimetres wide and they dig underneath. It is a frustrating and time-consuming task, and when deer get in the fence, it is hard to flush them out of a partly forested property.
A recent study done in Central Saanich found the average yearly net farm income was less than $10,000. Factoring in the time and materials for fencing and maintenance cannot simply be a cost of doing business. No government funding is available — B.C. spends the least money in support of agriculture in Canada, next to Newfoundland, which has almost no agriculture.
Our local certified organic standard is among the most sustainable of any in the world. If consumers choose to buy imported produce rather than locally grown, they are not preserving habitat or saving deer, but simply shifting these challenging questions to other jurisdictions. 
We are convinced that Vancouver Island certified-organic food, although it may involve some deer deaths, is overall a far more humane and sustainable option. We prefer not to export exploitation and environmental destruction by buying food produced elsewhere that is grown with dubious labour and environmental standards. By keeping our food system local, we can ensure best practices if and when deer killing becomes necessary. By bringing the discussion out into the open, we can involve qualified First Nations hunters, and the deer can become part of a healthy food system.
We will continue to explore many options for deer control. In the meantime, we continue to believe passionately that eating local, certified-organic food is the best thing we can do to make our food system more humane and sustainable for the whole ecosystem.
Robin Tunnicliffe and Heather Stretch are farmers and owners of Saanich Organics.

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