The Peat Report: Fafard’s Hugh Poole On The Peat Industry

Hugh Poole, director of technical services for Fafard, recently connected with Greenhouse Grower about all things peat moss for the November 2010 Peat Report.

GG: Do you believe peat moss is a sustainable resource?

HP: The peat moss used in the horticultural industry is sustainable in North America. It is a slowly renewable resource that regenerates itself in nature faster than it is presently being harvested.

GG: What does responsible peat harvesting mean? Do you believe your company harvests peat responsibly?

HP: Responsible peat harvesting means a sincere respect for this valuable resource, the land and the people. The Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) and Canadian provincial authorities have developed a set of common-sense guidelines that the major peat-harvesting companies have pledged to follow. They include: 1) an environmental impact study regarding endangered species and drainage patterns, 2) a survey and audit of the bog to determine harvest potential and limitations, including setting aside parts of the bog to protect drainage patterns or rare plants, 3) monitoring  water quality from runoff, 4) adherence to the agreed-upon harvest guidelines, 5) maximizing employment opportunities for regions with severe unemployment or under employment, 6) collection of royalties from peat harvests, and 7) monies set aside for the restoration to either peatlands or wetlands at the termination of the harvesting life of the bog.

An active member of the CSPMA, Fafard harvests peat in a responsible manner, which I have observed first-hand as well as participated in many discussions concerning these practices.

GG: How important is bog restoration to your company?

HP: Fafard is committed to sustainable peat harvesting and bog restoration. We have been restoring several of our older bogs for more than a decade. These activities begin long before a bog has reached the end of its harvest life; it is not unusual to see one part of the bog being restored while another section is being prepared for harvest. Fafard strongly supports these activities as a responsible citizen, employer and supplier to the horticultural industry.

As Fafard’s technical services director, I have participated in meetings sponsored by international, university and industry organizations and have toured bogs that have on-going research and restoration activities. There is a strong program at Laval University supported by the peat industry and governmental agencies. The Canadian and provincial governments have set standards and incentives to encourage bog restoration. The employees of the major peat-harvesting companies and their communities actively embrace these efforts.

GG: Do you think there is a misconception by peat moss critics that peat moss is not harvested responsibly and few bogs are being restored?

HP: I think many peat moss critics are misinformed about peat moss, harvesting and restoration activities. Much of the criticisms have come from European experiences and the use of peat as a fuel or energy source, which is not applicable to North America. Most of my experiences have been in New Brunswick, where Fafard has been harvesting peat since the 1940s and where we closed our first and oldest bog a few years ago. Because bogs can be harvested for 25 to 40 years, to date very few bogs have needed restoration. Our Shippagan, New Brunswick, bog is being restored in an exciting consortium of university, provincial, non-profit organizations and industry. The plans and discussions around this future educational showplace have been fascinating.

Harvesting peat is similar to harvesting an agricultural crop or forest trees, only the time frames are different. In other aspects, peat harvest is similar to a mining operation except peat can be restored, whereas coal or minerals cannot. In all of Canada, only 40,000 acres have been harvested out of more than 270 million acres of peatlands. Unlike road building or development activities, peat harvesting is not an extensive, indiscriminate activity gobbling up peatlands.

GG: Do you believe peat moss critics associate European harvesting and restoration practices–or the lack thereof–with Canadian and U.S. harvesting and restoration practices?

HP: I think Europeans were slow to respond to the criticisms, mainly because of the dependence upon peat as a fuel source when alternatives are very expensive.  Peatlands in the UK and Holland were very limited and harvested for decades without guidelines. In North America, we have learned a lot from their experiences and time has been on our side. We do not have the same harvest pressure Western Europe experienced.

GG: How would you compare European practices with Canadian practices or, more specifically, the practices of your company?

HP: Fafard has a profound respect for the environment. In Canada, we harvest in a manner that suits the available resources. Fuel is an important cost component and we are constantly looking at ways to reduce those costs. Our industry is predominantly vacuum-harvested, utilizing solar energy to dry our harvest on the bog.

GG: What would you like to say to those who have been critical of the peat moss industry? Are they wrong?

HP: First, I would encourage those who choose to criticize the peat moss industry to do their homework and visit a peat bog, such as in New Brunswick, in order to understand the reality. I have worked alongside our Acadian employees and participated in many of the activities associated with peat harvest. They take tremendous pride in their work, community and environment. Their families are involved in fishing, forestry and tourism. They recognize the need to protect the environment and have the means to do so.

Second, it appears the argument equating peat moss to significant CO2 (carbon dioxide) evolution is weighted toward peat as a fuel source. In other words, it converts all of the organic carbon to CO2 via complete oxidation or combustion similar to coal, petroleum or wood. However, peat is not totally consumed in a flash when used in horticulture. As a soil component, peat plays an active role in the carbon cycle as a food source for plants and the microbial activity in the soil. This is a vital contribution to the health of the soil and the vigor of plants. True, after many cycles, the peat is ultimately converted into CO2 and water but only after continuing the cycle of life. Peat is a precious environmental resource and very important to the horticultural industry.

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