By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press
Who is responsible for conservation? It’s a question we, as individuals, citizens and governments, need to seriously ask ourselves as we look to the future.
Over the last decade or so, we have seen more and more informal conservation areas lost. We have seen shelterbelts and other bushy areas removed, we have seen land drained and the loss of wetlands. On an individual farm level, there is little impact, but multiplied farm by farm, across the prairies, we see the effects. We see fewer wetlands to hold back the floodwater of spring melt or a heavy rains. We see less snow held in the trees to replenish the water table or moderate vegetation to the extremes of heat or cold or wind, common on the prairies.
In many cases, removing these features allow farmers to grow more profitable crops. This isn’t just because not having to go around natural obstacles makes it faster and more economical to farm, but also because it allows for the cultivation of higher value crops, such as converting pasture to cropland or growing irrigated potatoes. It may be tempting to blame farmers, but that ignores the larger problem — everyone knows the importance of conservation, but no one wants to pay for it.
The problem is that once one farmer does it, all of the incentives skew that way. Once one piece of land is worth more, assessments go up for all, even those whose land isn’t actually as “valuable” because it’s still covered in trees and wetlands. Farmers whose land isn’t suitable for growing more valuable crops, at least not without considerable investment, find that they are taxed as though it is. If we were looking at another small business owner, we would tell them to adapt their business in the face of rising costs, and that’s what many farmers have to do, even if they’d rather not.
The first option is for additional funding for conservation programs. There are grants from organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and local conservation districts, but they don’t always make up the difference. Farmers provide ecological goods and services and if they could be better compensated for them, conservation could play a more prominent role. According to the 2016 Census of Agriculture, there were 158.7 million acres of farmland in Canada. Of that, 93.4 million acres were cropland, a number which has been growing steadily with each Census of Agriculture. Stats Can found that this shift was due to farmers converting less productive land, such as pasture, into farmland and a shift away from summer fallow.
The carbon tax is a reality and what if some of that money came back to farmers for the role they can play in managing their land to act as a carbon sink? If farmers could be paid for “harvesting” carbon, I’m sure it’s a “crop” many would be happy to grow. Agriculture Canada says that practices such as restoring degraded land, improving pasture management, using legumes and/or grasses in crop rotations, converting marginal cropland to perennial grass or trees, planting shrubs and trees as shelterbelts and restoring wetlands all contribute to carbon sequestration. These are the practices that current economics penalize farmers for the undertaking.
The second thing farmers need to do is push for assessments that better reflect what they are doing with their lands. Assessments need to look at land on an individual basis; just because someone paid a lot for a perfectly level potato field, doesn’t mean a quarter of bush pasture is worth the same. This also means that municipalities have to be willing to give up some tax revenue. Conservation is in everyone’s interest and the time may come for everyone to bear the costs.