The elimination of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Agency by the Harper government has stripped western farmers of their best tool for coping with droughts and other climate change challenges, says Dave Sauchyn, a researcher at the University of Regina.
The folding of the PFRA into Agriculture Canada’s bureaucracy removed the extension workers from the field at the time when the farmers need information on adapting their operations to the risks of higher temperatures and less precipitation that accompanies climate change, Sauchyn told the Food Security and Climate Change Conference.
In public meetings with researchers across the Prairies, “farmers told us they needed help in adapting to climate change,” he said. “They need someone to improve their understanding of risk of hotter, drier summers.
“We need a co-ordinating agency to provide them with the expertise to provide the technical information they require,” he added. “The PFRA had been able to fill that role.”
The Harper government withdrew from the PFRA community pastures, turning them over to the provinces or private groups, and eliminated the extension personnel who could have helped, he said.
The PFRA was created in 1935 to help farmers recover from a prolonged drought that devastated western farming. It provided trees for shelterbelts and training in agriculture practices and water management to farmers so they could better cope with future dry spells.
Measurements of the South Saskatchewan River back to 1108 have found dry years are far more common than wet ones in Western Canada, he said. Alberta and Saskatchewan are especially dependent on water from the snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains. “Irrigated land is consistent in output while the areas dependent on natural precipitation are erratic in output. There is a clear connection between water and yields.”
The idea of an average year for western farmers “is a strange concept in Western Canada because almost every year there is too much or too little precipitation,” he said. “In the future, the range between wet and dry years will become even more extreme. The wet years will be wetter and dry years drier.”
With the help of PFRA, Prairie farmers restored the region’s agriculture capability while adapting to dryland farming, he said. Crop yields have risen by 228 per cent since the 1930s. Research in recent years has shown the Prairie growing season is three weeks longer because of climate change. At the same time, water supplies in midsummer are lower when precipitation is needed to keep the crop growing.
To prepare for climate change, the West needs to introduce adaptive planning from communities on up to make the region more resilient to extreme weather. That means “involving the right people with clear responsibilities and leadership to the communities informed.” The plans need to include measures to keep local businesses and services functioning.
While individuals “can prepare to some extent for water scarcity and excess water, there is a definite need for watershed and regional proactive planning, involving multiple agencies and orders of government.”
There is also a clear need “for programs for sharing information and providing financial support for innovative adaptation practices and increasing awareness and motivation.”
He recommended that watershed groups be “recognized as among the best-equipped groups to test out and implement local changes and adaptations, and to contribute to emergency preparedness plans and actions. Their activities should be supported and capacity enhanced.” The organizations need to be kept informed on provincial and federal programs.
Without government and university extension programs, “technical knowledge gap is now considered to be a significant problem when implementing or testing out new adaptation practices.”