There’s no such thing as “marginal” land, according to Tim Sopuck.
“Some land might be marginal for annual crop production, but it doesn’t mean it’s marginal for cattle production or some other alternate use,” the chief executive officer of the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC) said in an interview July 27.
When it comes to conservation and agriculture, the issue isn’t necessarily to farm or not farm certain land, but rather finding the right fit, whether it’s for agriculture, nature or both.
The Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) Trust and the Conservation Trust is boosting the effort to help farmers find solutions, Sopuck said. Details about 20 new projects, which will receive $5.6 million in trust funding along with another almost $9 million in private and landowner money, were announced July 22.
“Maybe some of that land that isn’t working out as annual cropland is far better off as forage land,” he said. “The vast majority of program options we would have (due to the trust funding invested by the province) would allow producers to continue to take a cut of hay or graze on these lands. It’s not whether it’s in production or out of production; it’s maybe the mode of production changes.”
Why it matters: Annual crops require expensive inputs that might not pay if the land isn’t well suited for it. GROW (Growing Outcomes in Watersheds) is funding projects to help farmers shift land use to improve farms and the environment.
In 2018, the province set aside $102 million for the Conservation Trust, a commitment later expanded in 2019 with the announcement of a distinct GROW Trust, worth an additional $52 million, and the promise of another $50-million Wetlands GROW Trust in fall 2019, which would bring the total investment to $204 million. The larger trust centres more towards organizations, Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen said earlier this year, while GROW and Wetlands GROW projects are to be more locally targeted.
The Winnipeg Foundation manages the funds for the trusts, while the MHHC reviews proposed projects, and then tracks and evaluates results.
“Between the Conservation Trust and GROW Trust (and the Wetlands GROW Trust) there is going to be an annual revenue stream in the range of $10 million to drive all this and it’s in perpetuity,” Sopuck said. “No future government will be able to claw that back because it’s sitting with the Winnipeg Foundation.
“It’s unique in Canada. Nobody has taken this approach. It’s really spectacular. I talk to my conservation pals in other provinces and they just shake their heads. They can’t believe what we have here.”
If Manitoba’s conservation trust approach, on a per capita basis, was applied nationally, it would generate $5.6 billion to fund conservation, Sopuck said.
“That gives some understanding how much Manitoba bled to achieve this,” he added.
The list of trust objectives includes improving water quality, flood and drought mitigation, storing carbon, enhancing biodiversity, improving soil health, decreasing soil erosion, restoring and enhancing habitat, improving ways for people to connect with nature, adapting to climate change and, “increasing production of harvestable wildlife,” according to the MHHC website.
The money is being used in, “a very farmer-friendly way to re-naturalize the landscape,” Sopuck said.
“The kinds of things we need to do across the landscape is what we are dedicating this money to,” he said. “We’re not going to win the watershed battle just with a couple of big dams. We’ve got to win it on the landscape with all kinds of little projects replicated over and over and over again across the landscape.”
For example, on July 22, Sopuck, Premier Brian Pallister and Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen visited a canola field in the Souris River Watershed District. About five acres out of a 160-acre field are subject to flooding due to rain, drowning the crop, Pedersen said in an interview July 23. The farmer doesn’t harvest a crop there; he’s lost the money he spent on seed and other inputs in those low spots, but the district has a program to pay farmers not to drain Class 1 and Class 2 wetlands.
“In future years, he has plans to square it up, plant hay or water-tolerant grasses, alfalfa, salt-tolerant plants… and then he can hay it,” Pedersen said. “And he still gets the annual benefit of the per-acre payment, but also too he is saving on the inputs from the annual crop that he’s not getting back. This is a really neat program from that pothole country…”
Payments for that program are based on a percentage on the appraised value of the land, Sopuck said. It varies between watershed districts.
“One of the real strengths of GROW is that it does have that local decision-making element to it,” he said. “Exactly how a district delivers a program is not prescribed in detail.
“This program tries to respect the needs and complexities out on the landscape,” he added.
Pedersen was impressed with another conservation project he visited at Don and Stephani McLean’s farm near Manitou in the Pembina Valley Watershed District.
An earthen dam was built on their land in 2018 to reduce flood peaks and soil erosion and to improve water quality. The reservoir, with 113 acre-feet of storage — 74 of it temporary and 60 permanent — captures run-off from more than 4,600 acres of land. Some of that water is used by the McLeans to irrigate a nearby field.
“There’s nutrient management and flood control and doing economic development with the irrigation, so it’s a good project,” Pedersen said.
This project was not funded through GROW, but similar projects could be, according to Sopuck.
“It’s a new program and we really want… to encourage farmers to talk to their watershed districts and see what’s possible,” Pedersen said. “They may have projects that may work on their farms.”