Research project to test viability of on-land salmon farming

Salmon farming is moving on land.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Fund are joining forces in a research project that will try to rear salmon in a freshwater closed-containment system.

“It’s huge, it’s groundbreaking,” Bill Taylor, the federation’s president, said. “Hopefully it will help us move towards much more environmentally friendly and wild-salmon friendly aquaculture.”

Over the next year, the federation plans to grow 10 tonnes of salmon in a circular, stainless-steel tank that is slightly larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

The Conservation Fund, an American non-profit organization, has successfully conducted similar trials with St. John River salmon in smaller qualities, but Taylor said this project is the first trial of this magnitude. Taylor said the project’s budget is $120,000.

Jonathan Carr, the federation’s director of research and environment, said the goal is to provide an environmentally friendly solution to the growing global demand for salmon.

He said there has been concern in recent years about farmed salmon escaping their confines and contaminating wild fish stocks. The on-land, closed-containment system would eliminate this risk, Carr said.

It would also result in a better product for consumers, since pesticides and harsh chemicals would no longer be necessary to raise the fish to maturity. And farmers would be able to charge more for the higher quality, making it cost competitive, Taylor said.

He added that commercial salmon farming is on the brink of maxing out its growth potential. On-land fish farms could be the answer to global demand for salmon, which continues to rise, he said.

But this may be a pipe dream, according to some. Pamela Parker is the executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

“Closed containment is not the magic bullet that some people make it out to be,” she said.

There are significant questions surrounding energy usage and the amount of water that a large-scale operation would use, she said.

Every minute, 5,000 litres of water would pass through the system. However, Taylor said 99.8 per cent of it would be recirculated into the ground, just as clean as when it entered their system.

While Taylor said he couldn’t see closed-containment farms replacing existing fish farm operations, he said it would be great to see in the future. But what may work on a small scale doesn’t always translate to a functional, large-scale operation, Parker said.

To be economically viable, Carr said they would need to grow two to three thousand tonnes. In comparison, Parker said, New Brunswick fish farmers produce a total of 35 thousand metric tonnes of salmon.

To match that output, the tanks would need to cover the space of about 8,000 football fields, Parker said.

“we’re very supportive of new research,” she said, “we’re just not convinced … (this) could be justified.”

The project will be housed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Taylor said, “there’s certainly risk but we think it’s very low.”

Previously published June 24, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Heavy reliance on potatoes puts agriculture in peril: prof

A researcher of rural economies warns that a lack of diversity in the industry is steering New Brunswick agriculture toward a crisis.

Susan Machum, the Canada research chair in social justice and a professor at St. Thomas University, said the reliance on potatoes in New Brunswick’s agricultural sector is a disaster waiting to happen.

Farmers have pressed toward crop specialization for years, in the interests of cost efficiency and economies of scale, Machum said. But those actions have built up to produce a grim 21st-century situation.

“It’s like you’re driving down the highway,” she said, “it’s been going fine, and then suddenly up ahead we’re seeing major crisis. There are big major potholes in the road and the road is washing away,” Machum said.

“It took us several decades to get here, and now it’s like ‘hmmm, this is not a good road to be on.’?”

Potatoes are the province’s largest agricultural commodity, spanning 200 farms and 50,000 acres. In the 2006 census, New Brunswick farmers reported working 375,590 acres of cropland.

Machum said when there is so much weight placed on a specific crop, a single disease can wipe out an entire growing season.

For example, the mad cow crisis on British cattle farms had catastrophic economic impacts on the industry. Even poor weather during the planting season can affect the entire year’s profit.

Joe Brennan agrees that having more variety spreads out dependence and lowers risk. He is the chairman of New Brunswick Potatoes, a producer-driven organization.

He said potato farming is a market-driven industry and there isn’t really a long-term plan to deal with a sudden drop in global demand or an unexpected shortage in supply.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” he said.

Most farmers educate themselves on the best way to protect their crops from agricultural diseases such as late blight, and a jointly-funded crop insurance program creates something of a buffer, but Brennan said there’s always risk.

If something were to come along and decimate the potato industry, said Brennan, it would hit the province hard. And it wouldn’t just affect potato growers, It would trickle through the economy, toppling various sectors like dominos.

Brennan added that more crop diversity is not only better for economic protection and stability, but it also means healthier soil.

Lots of people have decided to just ignore the problem and assume someone else will fix it, Machum said.

“We’re on this path. How do you get off? … ?We’re caught.”

She said that there is hope in an emerging younger generation committed to sustainable farming.

But once you’re on a certain trajectory, it can be very hard to stop it, she said.

Previously published June 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Organics: the natural way to keep ’em down on the farm

The face of farming is getting younger.

With the traditional, family-owned farm continuing on a steady decline as farmers age and find it increasingly difficult to convince younger generations to take over, observers have noticed a surprising trend: Twentysomethings are jumping eagerly into the field.

As young people learn about the chemicals used to grow produce for mass consumption, more of them are starting organic farms, says Beth McMahon, executive director of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network, or ACORN, and has been tracking the shift.

She said that at the ACORN organics conference in March, approximately 40 per cent of participants were under 30 years of age. A few years ago, there were just a handful of eager individuals, she said.

Mike Hadfield was one of those early few. When he and his two buddies – Luke McLean and Katherine McCord – decided to start an organic farm in 2006, they were all between 21 and 22 years old. As they grew their quarter-acre plot of land in Bayfield into the sustainable farming operation it is today, Hadfield said they’ve also noted more organic farms popping up around the province.

According to the 2006 census, New Brunswick lost 257 farms in the space of five years. In the same period, the number of certified organic farms increased by 68 per cent.

“Farmers have said to their kids, ‘Don’t go into farming! Run! Get a real job!’,” McMahon said.

But these new entrepreneurial enthusiasts, many with little background in farming, mean an influx of fresh perspectives and approaches to the field, she said. They are exploring new strategies such as agricultural tourism and social media as a marketing tool.

“The face of agriculture is changing,” Hadfield said.

For a province in which the average farmer is almost 60 years old and often “stuck in their ways,” organic farmer Jesse Vergen said, “it’s really a renaissance.”

Vergen, 32, runs a successful, 14-acre organic vegetable farm in Quispamsis with his wife. He supplies a variety of Saint John restaurants, including the Saint John Ale House (where he is executive chef) and the Smoking Pig Real BBQ, which he owns. He is proof there is a market for the produce grown by young organic farmers. But he cautions that it is in no way a “get rich quick” business.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said.

Claude Berthélémé is an organic development specialist at the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries. She said she thinks the influx of young people will be a positive renewal for New Brunswick.

“It’s not a fad, it’s not for hippies, it’s something real,” McMahon said, and it’s not only spreading in the province, but also across Canada and the world.

Still, notable growth aside, organic farms make up only approximately 1.5 per cent of New Brunswick’s agricultural land, McMahon said. The ratio of organic to non-organic farms is similarly polarized.

“It’s a tiny drop in the bucket … but it’s growing,” she said.

According to Berthélémé, there are about 45 certified organic producing farms in New Brunswick and another 12 processors.

Previously published June 17, 2011; Telegraph-Journal