February 8, 2018

Agriculture Conservation – Farmers and government working together for a stronger environment

Doyle Wiebe

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of appearing before the House of Commons Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food in Ottawa to discuss grain farming’s role in water and soil conservation and how climate change is impacting what we do. As a fourth-generation farmer in my community of Langham, Saskatchewan, adapting to climate change has been part of my business practices for decades.

This spring I will be seeding my 45th crop along with my business partner, Mark, a neighbour who is planning to be my successor on the 6,000+ acres we farm together today. We both hope to see him pass the farm on to his two sons one day.

Each year presents new challenges, more so lately. With warmer winters and generally more moisture, fungal diseases, some insects and surface water issues in areas with no drainage options have required new ways of thinking.

The soil in my area is considered marginal, or poor. It is quite sandy and prone to salinity which is exacerbated when soil moisture levels are high. Historically, this type of soil was prone to wind erosion in fallow years which was mostly done to conserve moisture for next year’s crop as sandy soil does not hold a lot of moisture.

In the most recent 15 years however, we have seen a complete shift from the driest conditions in my father’s lifetime to the wettest and currently back to dry. Five years ago I lost 25% of my cultivated acres due to excess water levels. In the last ten years, crop insurance programs in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have paid out more due to excess moisture than due to dry conditions.

Farmers themselves are incredibly innovative and proactive in adapting to the changing climate. Many have worked with equipment manufacturers to deal with wetter soil conditions. For example – it was quite rare 10 years ago to see dual wheels on combines – now it is mostly standard equipment and even tracks are seen on some. Dual wheels on wet soil allows the weight of our equipment to be spread out, reducing soil compaction, preserving soil health – and not getting stuck in the mud so easily.

Plant breeding efforts have needed to shift focus to try to address disease and insect issues. There has been some success, and we have embraced these solutions whenever possible to improve performance and avoid pesticide applications. As a result, new drought and disease resistant varieties are having a real positive impact on the environment.

While farmers invest time and money into research and innovation, they cannot do it alone. Potential partnerships already exist for government and industry. Our public institutions, including AAFC, have incredible research capacity but it has to be nurtured.

In order to get innovative products to farmers, Canada also requires a regulatory and policy environment that allow private sector research to thrive. This means a strong Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) with a clear mandate and adequate funding to ensure that farmers have access to innovative products and the tools they need to adapt.

All of this work is intended to help me manage the risks in front of me as best I can. However, there is only so much a farmer can do when nature works against all odds. That is why strong Business Risk Management (BRM) programming is an important tool for managing and adapting to changing climates. Crop insurance, with premiums cost shared by governments and producers is an essential risk management tool for grain growers across Canada.

While BRM programs should only pay out assistance when truly required, it is essential that tools are available and meaningful when risks can no longer be managed by the farmers themselves. Every farmer has a different financial risk and risk profiles have been changing over time. Mine is quite different from Mark’s and BRM programming must be improved to help ensure his children will have the opportunity to continue his legacy.

The Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments are currently undertaking a comprehensive review of BRM programming. This is a unique opportunity to take a close look and develop programs that work for the future and GGC strongly encourages our governments to ensure that the review is meaningful and puts everything on the table. That is the only way we can ensure that BRM programs will be able to be the backstop growers need as they face increasing risks in the future.

Farmers practice continuous improvement in production practices and we are only now getting a clear picture of just how much carbon is being sequestered in the soil thanks to modern farming practices. It is much more than was theorized 30 years ago. More research is needed to properly quantify the environmental benefit of carbon sequestration and it is imperative that the positive impacts of this are passed on to farmers when government puts climate change initiatives like carbon prices into place.

Grain farmers’ contributions to cleaner air, water and removal of greenhouse gases from the environment, all the while building healthier soil for the next generation, is part of the legacy we are leaving today. I am proud of my legacy and want be part of a strong future for my industry.

Doyle Wiebe is GGC Treasurer representing the Canadian Canola Growers Association. Doyle is also Chair of the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission and past President of the Saskatchewan Soil Development Commission. 

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