Farmer counts deer, geese as friends

Deer and geese can be prevented from munching through crops if farmers work with their natural patterns and behaviours, says a successful Blenkinsop Valley organic farmer.

Farmers throughout the Capital Regional District are struggling to stop deer and geese destroying crops. Some farmers are closing fields or reducing crop varieties, and the CRD board is preparing strategies to deal with the animals.

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But Nathalie Chambers of Madrona Farm has deer corridors, where deer are fed leftover veggies, and fields where geese snack on winter cover plants, leaving behind droppings to enrich the soil for next year’s crop.

“We love the deer in this area. They even sleep in my greenhouse sometimes. It’s like a homeless shelter,” said Chambers, who farms the 10-hectare property on Blenkinsop Road with her husband, David.

Bucks gather in the two-hectare corridor and appear to have bachelor parties, Chambers said.

As a bonus, a parcel that was sold to Saanich as an addition to Mount Douglas Park acts as an extension of the deer corridor.

“Deer have cellular memories of the traditional trails they take, and that’s one of the things we have to figure out,” said Chambers, who believes many problems Greater Victoria residents are facing are caused by deer being fenced out of traditional routes.

“[At Madrona], we are putting the deer into the equation, rather than shutting them out,” she said.

While deer are welcome in the corridor, they are firmly shut out of other areas at Madrona Farm.

Page-wire fences, at least 1.8 metres high and topped with barbed wire, surround the fields, and a deer-proof wire gate, decorated with golf clubs, marks the no-go area for deer.

“We have an understanding: We feed them behind the stand, and they shall not pass the gate,” said Chambers, who has had few problems with deer breaking into the prohibited areas.

Farther down Blenkinsop Road, farmer Rob Galey, with about 60 hectares under cultivation, has little faith in fences and says deer barge through holes or teach their fawns to burrow under fences.

Galey is giving up leases on about 12 hectares of farmland because of problems with deer and geese.

While Madrona Farm is smaller, Chambers cannot see that size makes a difference.

“It’s not about size. This works,” she said.

Proof comes in the exotic shapes and colours of the organic veggies that are sold at the farm stall and to high-end restaurants year round.

More than 100 crops are produced over the 12-month cycle and, this month, range from Brussels sprouts, squash and kale to rutabagas, parsnips and leeks.

Everything, except long-lasting items such as garlic and squash, is sold the same day it is picked, and leftovers are given to shelters or fed to the deer.

Canada geese are also offered options at Madrona Farm.

“Goose poop every foot is good,” said Chambers, who plants cover crops such as native sunflowers, bee balm, clover and chickweed once the main crop is off the field.

“The geese eat the cover crops, and then they poop,” she said.

That is brilliant for the soil and revives it for the next year without having to revert to fertilizers or pesticides, Chambers said, pointing proudly to her compost.

“We have had it tested, and it’s like gold,” she said.

But the geese get a strong message from strands of blue twine that they cannot land in fields without cover crops.

“They won’t land if there’s something that impairs their takeoff or landing,” Chambers said. “We get no predation from geese.”

The goose-deterrent strings are tied to trees, again demonstrating that there are benefits to leaving an ecosystem intact, Chambers said.

“We can’t keep tinkering. We can’t remove things from the ecosystem and expect it to function,” she said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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