Scott Lavich was already sold on supporting pollinator habitat before he signed on with Syngenta Canada’s Operation Pollinator last year.
The Riding Mountain-area producer already had both interest and experience in on-farm conservation, making him a perfect fit for the program, which offers up to two acres worth of pollinator-friendly seed mix and financial support to help get that seed in the ground.
Last fall, Lavich joined the ranks of producers to receive their seed mix from Syngenta Canada and the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, planting it this spring in what he hoped would be a multi-year plot of pollinator-friendly perennials.
It is the second year for the program in Western Canada, after Syngenta launched the farm version of a similar program aimed at golf courses.
In its ideal form, Operation Pollinator would replace a farmer’s marginal land with a block (or blocks) of pollinator habitat. The mix itself is an amalgam of alsike, red and sweet clover, timothy grass (to establish quickly against weeds), bird’s-foot trefoil and phacelia, a mix Syngenta says it has targeted to balance economical feasibility, commercial availability, and continuous blooming.
Syngenta reports that it has been generally happy with stands both this year and last year and, in fact, sites like Manitoba Beef and Forage Initiatives near Brandon has impressed with its jungle of sweet clover and dramatic carpet of phacelia over the last two years.
For Lavich and other Operation Pollinator producers in his area, however, it’s been more of a challenge.
Eric Gustafson’s first year attempt near Onanole was still brown and showed little establishment as of late July.
The producer chose an eight-year-old pasture for the project, driving seeds deeply through thick thatch for fear that dry conditions would keep shallow seeds from germinating. He fears that did little good however, since there was little moisture to be found even at that depth.
In retrospect, he said, he might have planted greenfeed or vegetable the year before to help break up the old pasture.
“I’m waiting to see what it does and what we’ve got come fall,” he said. “I don’t know what this is going to do, whether we redo it again or whether we just overtill it.”
Gustafson’s experience highlights the importance of site preparation, according to Jim Tokarchuk, executive director of the Soil Conservation Council of Canada.
The ground cover may have impacted the ability to get seed-to-soil contact, he said, despite the one-inch seeding depth.
“I think that what we would advise now is to do your site preparation well in advance,” he said. “Maybe in the fall before, try and reduce the trash loads as much as you can. Not to bare soil, we don’t want to see that, but get as much of that done in the fall and then try and get a good seedbed prepared before you get the seed on.”
Tokarchuk also advised producers to seed their mix early, something that may have given better moisture conditions.
Lavich says he got a better start to his plot, although the area is suffering from the same lack of moisture that has plagued hay lands, crops and pasture conditions in many parts of the province.
In terms of weather alone, Tokarchuk noted that 2017-18 might be, “the worst couple of years in the last 20 years,” to start the program, although it also meant any flaws would also have been more easily revealed and that many other sites still saw good growth.
Paul Hoekstra, Syngenta Canada senior stewardship and policy manager, was undeterred.
The program is still in its infancy, he said, and they are still learning from the first few years and looking for ways to improve.
Hoekstra says farmer feedback has given insight into, “some management tips and tricks that probably we’re learning here on different soil types and maybe the need for some adjustment there.”
“There’s quite an infinite number of mixes you could potentially make and I think the mix we started with here was a great general mix for us to start from and, again, learn from for the future,” he said. “But we have had opportunities on a case-by-case basis to tailor based on salinity or what soils (are there), etc.”
Hoekstra suggested that the company might look at more direct communication with farmers, “to get more feedback on the actual, local conditions of those sites that have been recruited and then tailor as needed.”
Lavich also suggested that the program might be better tailored for soil type and farm need.
“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “I think it could work. You can tailor those mixes just slightly and then whoever the producer is that’s getting it, they’ll know their soil. They’ll know whether it’s a sandy, light loam or whether it’s a heavy clay like this. You have two or three mixes for, maybe, wet areas, heavy soil, sandy soil, and then you can just say what you’re going to need depending on what you’re planting — especially if some guys are doing it on marginal areas along waterways or sloughs. You might need that flood-tolerant mix.”
Operation Pollinator has now attracted 133 producers in Western Canada, well over the 80 that it drew last year and surpassing the program’s original goal of 100 producers.
Syngenta Canada will be considering producer feedback in the coming months, Hoekstra said, along with biomonitoring results to gauge insect population impact over the coming years.
For his part, Lavich says he is still enthusiastic about the program, despite the early challenges.
“It’s a great program for what they’re doing,” he said. “I hope more people get involved.”