Ken Siemens knows a thing or two about pipelines.
The organic farmer and buffalo rancher has had a few of them built through his property near Cecil Lake, British Columbia over the years. And it seems that no matter how hard the pipeliners try to keep from dragging weeds onto his land, a few of them sneak their way into his crops of hay and straw.
It is a significant challenge shared by the oil and gas industry and the agricultural community.
"The oil patch does have a tendency, over the last number of years, of spreading quite a bit of weeds," said Siemens, taking a moment to relax on his porch alongside his old friend and fellow farmer Fern Mertens on a hot summer morning.
"Every pipeliner that comes across your property drags in weeds," he continued. "They're doing more due diligence now, trying to clean up as they come, but that doesn't always mean that's really what happens."
Siemens has actually seen companies be very careful about how they treat his land, but he also knows that it isn't easy to stop the spread of weeds.
"You're not going to get rid of the weeds," he said. "I mean, dandelions are a weed. We're talking noxious weeds. We're talking quack grass, thistle, chamomile."
That is why Siemens got involved in a pilot project that began in early 2011 with a plan to provide certified weed-free forage for individuals such as guide outfitters who take their horses into the pristine backcountry of northern B.C.
"Initially, the program started because we wanted to make sure that that backcountry horse people were using certified weed-free hay, especially out in the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area and all of our provincial parks up here," said Sonja Leverkus of the Fort Nelson Invasive Plant Steering Committee.
During a discussion with oil and gas company representatives in Fort Nelson almost two years ago, Leverkus and her colleagues were asked if it would be possible to provide certified weed-free straw for industry use as well.
Leverkus immediately agreed to expand the program.
"In oil and gas development and road development and lease sites and pipelines going in," said Leverkus, "what we notice from an invasive plant perspective is that those are the areas that invasive plants are getting introduced in northeast B.C. from a result of machinery and equipment not being steam cleaned prior to going out to those places, as a result of seed that is used for re-vegetation being contaminated with invasive plants, as a result of rig matting … that comes up from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson.
"We are so weed-free up here," she continued, "but Fort St. John is a little bit different. So, that stuff comes up from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson on rig mats, gets laid down out in the bush, and then all of a sudden we have an invasive plant infestation."
Another big issue is the use of straw bales for purposes such as erosion prevention when building roads. The bales can contain the seeds of noxious weeds, which consequently take control of the roadside and spread into the forest.
"Initially, when the project first kicked off, I was working for the Invasive Species Council of B.C.," said Elaine Armagost, now the Invasive Plant Program Manager for the Peace River Regional District (PRRD).
Armagost was visiting Siemens at his farm that hot summer morning to take a peek at the fruits of his labour.
"They were very interested in the weed-free forage program because they are all about prevention," she continued. "And prevention is the cheapest way to keep invasive plants out of our pristine backcountry. And so that's kind of how it started. And I worked with them. And I was working on more of the marketing side, public relations side. And then I left them and I came to work here for the Peace River Regional District."
The PRRD was one of the sponsors of the launch of the pilot project.
"Just about a year ago, I think, we met here on Ken's farm and we talked about the North American Weed Management Association (NAWMA) standards for weed-free forage," said Armagost. "And we had a big walk around here. And we went and looked at some of Ken's fields. And decided that he would make a good pilot because he's an organic producer and very interested in the program. And understands what invasive plants in the outback mean."
Funding from the Northeast Invasive Plant Council and the Northwest Invasive Plant Council – which collectively cover all of B.C. north of Quesnel – got the program off the ground.
"We have, provincially, the most pristine land in the province in the north, that's not invaded by invasive plants at this point," said Armagost. "So, we felt it was a really important initiative to kick-off. So, we inspected some of Ken's fields. And we certified them as weed-free according to the NAWMA standards. And he put up the hay. And we've been trying to promote it in the oil and gas sector and for outback users who bring horses and go into the outback."
Maintaining the certified weed-free status of his hay and straw is an arduous process for Siemens.
It isn't cheap either.
"We're organic," he explained. "So, we don't use sprays. No pesticides. No fertilizers. None of that stuff. So, we work at being weed free year-round, whether we're doing it for this weed-free project or not.
"The cost of having it inspected, it brings up the cost. The cost of keeping it separated from your other feeds brings up the cost. The handling. And it does bring up the cost of the feed. I mean, it's just a fact of life if you're trying to fill a small niche.
"It's going to cost more."
If weeds are discovered on his land, Siemens has to remove them manually.
"It would be real simple if you could just go ahead and spray it," he said, "but what happens if you want to sell your product to somebody that doesn't do the spraying the same as we do?"
Staying certified weed-free is also hard work for the individual who has to inspect his fields.
"The inspection process is something that takes a lot of foot-miles," said Siemens. "The inspector walks your whole field. I mean, he's pretty thorough. And if he does find anything, he marks it with a flag and a stake.
"It costs us money to have it inspected," he added. "And once we're done with the pilot project, it's probably going to cost us a little more."
"Every year, he'll have his field inspected by a certified weed-free inspector," said Leverkus.
"We have a methodology that we follow," she continued. "So, transect lines. And we have three weed lists that we follow. One of them is the weed list under the Weed Control Act, the weed list as listed in the Forest and Range Practices Act, and then the weed list as listed under the North American Weed Management Association. So, the inspector has in their mind all of those weeds.
"At the end of that, they will go through with the producer and talk about the fields. If there are invasive plants found in the field, we'll flag that area off and make a buffer around it. And then the rest of the field could still be certified.
"And then we have special tags that get put on each bale."
The buffer around those invasive plants is twenty feet.
"And we ourselves usually make it a little bigger," said Siemens.
The fight against noxious weeds is starting to gain traction thanks to a few recent incidents with invasive species of both plants and animals.
"It's actually been the last year that there's been a lot of media coverage," said Armagost.
"It started about a year ago," she continued, "with the giant hogweed out of Vancouver, where it was found on a schoolyard, and a little boy in school actually got some of the sap, and it caused a burn. That kind of started some awareness around invasive species."
Recently, a snakehead fish, a voracious predator not native to Canadian waters, was caught in the Burnaby Central Park lagoon.
"They tried to catch the fish," said Armagost. "They couldn't catch it."
Fortunately, it was a manmade lake that was fairly easy to drain in order to catch the fish.
"They take over ecosystems," Armagost said of these invasive species. "And they upset the natural balance."
Armagost also discussed growing concerns about a plant known as Japanese knotweed.
"It's an invasive plant that will grow through concrete," she explained. "It will grow underneath a four lane highway and come up on the other side. It will come up through all the fill.
"It was actually introduced as a slope-stabilizer," she continued, "but it's actually found to actually cause erosion because the roots are not fibrous roots."
They basically just have a large taproot.
"So, when they grow, they expand, and they actually loosen the horizons in the soil and cause erosion," said Armagost.
There was an unconfirmed sighting of Japanese knotweed in Grande Prairie early this July.
"That's really frightening," said Armagost."Once you get it, it' super, super hard to kill."
Another weed of concern, leafy spurge, was also seen near Grande Prairie recently.
"If that comes here, then we could be in big trouble," said Armagost.
"Because that one, you treat it twice a year with herbicide, and all you do is make it sick. You can't get rid of it. Once you get it, you can't get rid of it.
"So, those are two that are kind of close and they're of concern."
However, the biggest local concern, according to Armagost, is actually the common tansy.