You could have mistaken Co-operator reporter Lorraine Stevenson for a coal miner, coated as she was with black dirt, after she ventured out across southern Manitoba during those 70- to 90-kilometre-per-hour winds April 15.
But for the modern farm equipment and steel granaries in the background, her photographs of airborne and drifting soil could have been taken in the 1930s instead of 2015.
A video is posted on the Manitoba Co-operator website. If you can stand it, turn up the volume and listen to the wind’s eerie howl. The story tells itself.
The headlines that week were all about the toll a tragic combination of wind and fire took. But those winds caused immeasurable damage to soil as well — just as we were entering Soil Conservation Week in Canada.
Unfortunately, these black blizzards occur almost every year around this time in southern Manitoba, either just before or immediately after fields have been seeded. Blackened snowbanks at the fields’ edges provide evidence there is soil moving during the winter too.
Many will say the fact that it’s only happening a few times a year is a good thing — a sign of how much progress has been made. True, this is a far cry from the past when parts of the Prairies were on the verge of becoming incapable of producing a crop.
Nowadays, the acres on the Prairies left to summerfallow are at an all-time low. The amount of tillage farmers use has been dramatically reduced, and even on that extraordinarily windy day, there were fields in which the soil was staying put side by side with fields in which soil was being lost.
But that raises the question: why is it happening at all?
We are fully aware that some of the most lucrative crops farmers can grow in southern Manitoba leave little residue behind. That said, farmers do have options for protecting their soils. Only some are using them.
Municipal officials will now be busy assessing the damage to the drainage infrastructure from the windstorm. Several areas are now one heavy rainstorm — also common this time of year — away from serious overland flooding. It’s an expensive job cleaning out those ditches. Municipalities successfully lobbied for $1.9 million in disaster assistance to help clean drainage systems after one windy weekend in May 2008.
Those costs can be easily calculated. What is more difficult to account for is the cost of lost productivity in the affected fields for the present and future generations.
We suspect that loss is higher than any lost productivity a farmer might incur through measures that would help keep the soil intact, such as maintaining shelterbelts, sowing cover crops in the fall, leaving the stubble from last year’s crop intact, or leaving more of the previous crop’s residue on the land.
The difference is, farmers don’t know how much wind erosion costs them because there are lots of variables that affect yields. They might actually receive compensation if those plugged drains result in flooded fields that prevent them from seeding or harvesting a crop.
That’s despite the fact that under a little-known statute called the Manitoba Land Rehabilitation Act, municipalities have the authority to regulate tillage practices to control erosion, provided their plan is approved by the provincial minister.
Section 8 (1) states: A municipality may, by bylaw, provide for the regulation and control of tillage practices that, in the opinion of the council, are liable to cause rapid soil deterioration by wind erosion.
Section 8 (2): A bylaw may apply to the whole of the municipality or any portion designated.
Section 8 (3): The bylaw may contain provisions requiring adoption of the practice of strip farming, the growing of cover crops, the providing of trash cover or the spreading of straw or other refuse on cultivated lands, prohibiting the burning of stubble, prohibiting the cutting or requiring the planting of trees, requiring, prohibiting, or governing, tillage operations, and regulating or prohibiting the growing of crops in specified areas.
These laws date back to the 1940s, Alberta has recently updated its statute, Saskatchewan’s was repealed in 2012. The Manitoba legislation appears to have been forgotten, but remains listed as active on the provincial government’s website.
Bylaws, fines and regulation are never the preferred way of making change. But on the basis of this, it is hard to justify disaster assistance or spending ratepayers’ money cleaning up a post-windstorm mess.
There are no doubt farmers and organizations who believe no government would dare interfere with something so individually specific to a farm’s management as tillage practices. They used to say that about stubble burning too.