George Dick

George Dick

Chilliwack Agriculture tour looks at today and tomorrow

Participants of this year's Chilliwack Ag Tour got a peek at the future of agriculture in the Fraser Valley.

A recent trip to the United States showed Walter Dyck the power of the American agricultural sector: barns as far as the eye could see; more chickens on just one farm than the entire flock in British Columbia.

What they lacked, however, was something common in Chilliwack – homes, and the families who manage those farms.

Dyck, chair of the Chilliwack Agriculture Commission, was speaking during a break in the 12th annual Chilliwack Agriculture Tour.

The difference, he said, between what he saw in the U.S. and what he sees here underscores the importance of agriculture to the local economy. The people who make that sector hum spend their money in the community. Indeed, agriculture accounts for 29 per cent of Chilliwack’s economic activity, keeping stores busy, and the people who work in the support services employed.

With one in five jobs in Chilliwack related to agriculture, added John Jansen, president of Chilliwack Economic Partners, the sector is not only important to our current economy, it is critical to our future.

Participants of this year’s tour got a glimpse of that future. They saw how family farms have grown and changed over the years, embracing new research and new technology in a bid to satisfy consumer demand, while remaining cognizant of the welfare of the animals in their care. And they saw how Chilliwack is moving toward becoming a centre of excellence in education and research in agriculture.

But they began by seeing the literal fruits of that labour, and the potential of food production in the local market place.

Four years ago Sandel Foods opened its production facility in the Kerr Avenue Food Processing Park near Advantage Foods. The company, purchased by Vanderpol Food Group in 2011, is regarded as an industry leader in providing fruit fillings and products to the bakery industry across Canada. Depending on the season, the facility employs about 50 industry-trained people, most of whom live in the Fraser Valley.

Although known as “Canada’s premier manufacturer of glacé fruit,” Sandel recently expanded its production capability. It now produces a selection of fresh, natural soups under licence for Happy Planet, which are available in distinctive pouches in most supermarkets.

Another product found on many local food shelves is produced just down the highway. Jeff and Jo-Leen Bisschop operate a free-range chicken farm near Chilliwack Central Road in Rosedale. The farm is one of six family operations that provide free-range eggs under the Country Golden Yolks label. The Bisschops have about 15,000 layers at any one time, producing roughly 14,000 eggs a day. The chickens, raised from hatchlings on the farm, are free to roam the outdoor pen (complete with misting stations to keep the birds cool), or inside the expansive indoor barn. The birds are fed a premium, high-protein all-vegetarian natural feed. The result, says Jeff Bisschop, is a happier (and therefore more productive) hen.

Over at Dicklands Farm a similar concern for animal health is driving innovation. In the calf barn, for example, airflow is carefully regulated to provide the proper amount of circulation, without causing a draft at the calf level. The result is an engineered environment that is neither chilled, nor hot and humid for the animals.

The farm currently has about 270 milking cows. But the innovations don’t end with the calves. Two years ago Dicklands introduced six robotic milking machines. The machines, which use lasers to guide the milking apparatus into place, do more than ensure adequate help is always on hand. The robots monitor the animals, registering how often they give milk, and how much weight they gain or lose. Each animal is equipped with transponder that not only holds important data, it can actually “listen” to the animal chew to determine the effectiveness of its feed composition.

All that information is stored, monitored and analyzed to ensure optimum animal health, says George Dick.

Robots do other work in the barn. There is a device that scurries along the barn floor to keep animal feed within reach. Another device helps scour the barn floor to keep it clean.

And other innovations are on the horizon. Dicklands is currently working to build an anaerobic digester that will break down manure into more manageable and more marketable parts.  The farm has already signed a contract with Fortis to sell methane gas into the pipeline network. The process will also enable the farm to sell separated nutrients, providing an additional revenue stream. At the same time, neighbours will benefit from less odour.

But if George Dick has his eye on the future, he’s not the only one.

At Canada Education Park, UFV’s BC Agriculture Centre of Excellence is starting to take shape. The foundation has been poured, and construction of the first of two, “poly-prop” greenhouses is underway. Eventually, the $3.5 million facility will include 250-square-metre demonstration barn that will give students hands-on practical experience, and provide an important research tool for animal care.

Complementing the two, 200-square-metre poly-prop greenhouses will be 400-square-metre greenhouse that will be constructed using the latest in greenhouse design. Its material will allow it to soar three storeys high, and introduce state-of-the-art concepts like “stacked” growing chambers.

But the facility will be more than a building, said UFV president Mark Evered, “It’s about the education programing.”

Giving an impassioned speech to tour participants in the soaring atrium of the university’s new Chilliwack campus, he said the Agriculture Centre will touch all facets of research and learning at the school. It will facilitate partnerships between various faculties, like geology and biology, while enhancing programs in the trades and technology department.

But the partnerships won’t end there, said Evered. The university is already in discussion with other universities, both here in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

“We’re pulling this all together to support this Centre of Excellence.”

And they’re not doing it alone. Not only has the provincial government provided initial funding for the effort, it has provided specific instructions to various government departments to help make it happen.

“We have the mandate,” he said.

But success of the centre will also take support from the private sector, he insisted. “We are government ‘assisted’, not ‘government funded.’” he emphasized.

The Centre, he said, is about providing our children with the intellectual tools they will need to become world leaders in providing a stable, safe and sustainable food supply.

“That is our challenge: to work together to raise these funds,” he said. “Whether we will succeed, or stumble and fail, it will be up to us.

“This will be our legacy.”