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Editor’s Take: Charting a different path for Canadian ag

The National Farmers Union used its 50th annual convention to release a major discussion paper that charts a new path for agriculture.

There are a lot of details, but it makes the case that farmers have committed to a form of high-input agriculture that can be environmentally harmful and economically risky.

The document’s key conclusion is that high-input agriculture is partially responsible for climate change, but is also harming farmers and causing what the organization characterizes as a “farm crisis,” expressed as record indebtedness and razor-thin operating margins.

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They’re suggesting farmers need to cut back on the use of inputs, including nitrogen fertilizer and that, in the end, the result would be reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increased net farm income.

According to the paper, input costs and other related expenses consume 95 per cent of farmers’ revenue, leaving them with just five per cent of the dollars that come in.

Among the NFU’s suggested antidotes are policies such as ALUS that would pay for environmental services, caps on nitrogen applications that incorporate best management practices such as 4R nutrient stewardship and less intensive livestock production that would augment the nutrient cycle.

Some of these proposals are unlikely to cause controversy. But other parts of the document almost certainly will. This includes a proposal for a small tax on fertilizer, an endorsement of farmers paying a carbon tax (but tempered by a call for a refund of the taxes collected upstream from the input manufacturers) and a more pie-in-the-sky call for a Canadian Farm Resilience Administration (CFRA) to help farmers protect their natural capital.

As Dawson reports, the group wants to transform the agriculture sector and tame greenhouse gas emissions — a feat that’s on par with winning the Second World War or sending man to the moon.

While their enthusiasm is admirable, history tells us that central planning for agriculture rarely works. The end result is almost always when decisions are made and policies are set by those too distant from the farm to fully understand the ramifications.

Certainly an outside eye can be helpful in pointing out the unnoticed, and government uses policy to set the direction. But the practical application of how to meet, for example, an environmental target, should be the decision of each individual farm manager.

Possible solutions will be weighed, experimented with and eventually, over the course of a few seasons, a workable solution will emerge. This is a paradigm we’ve seen play out in the recent past.

Take reduced or zero tillage as perhaps the best and most obvious example. The first dreamers began pursuing it in the 1970s because they wanted to do a better job of looking after their soil. Now almost every farmer on the Prairies is using less tillage than before.

It came down to the simple realization that it made sense for the farmers who chose to adopt it.

It eliminated many tillage passes across the field and the accompanying labour, fuel and equipment demands. It revealed itself to be the simpler, lower-risk and more profitable system. And although it took two decades for farmers to fully embrace it, reduced or the elimination of tillage is now an accepted farm management goal.

If many of the goals outlined in the NFU discussion paper are achieved, that’s likely how it will happen, and already there are clear signals emerging that a vanguard of young, committed and passionate producers in Manitoba are rising to this challenge.

They’re quietly working on their own farms and through grassroots research organizations, mainly under the ‘regenerative agriculture’ banner, to find and adopt solutions that work for their farms. They’re seeking biologically driven sustainable farms.

They’re daring to speak of strategies such as shrinking the size of their farms while making them more profitable, a statement that many would still regard as heresy.

One such group is the Manitoba Forage and Grasslands Association, which has been profiling producer-led efforts and projects looking at how to adapt regenerative agriculture concepts to the challenging Manitoba environment and short growing season.

In July of this year, MFGA went so far as to release a position statement endorsing regenerative agriculture and its drive to “… be part of a larger ecosystem, shifting the paradigm from prioritizing high yields above all else to establishing cycles of regeneration that improve long-term land use via profit and ecosystem health.”

Like the development of zero tillage decades ago, Manitoba farmers can and should be a leader in this drive.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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