September 1992 was a damp ending to one of those summers that never was. Farmers were having an awful time getting their crops off and fields cleaned up.
I remember it well, because at that time, I lived in a rural area near Winnipeg and I was at home with a newborn in the house. One late September afternoon our home’s smoke detector went off — not because of a fire in the house, but because of stubble burning nearby. As a new and somewhat anxious parent, I considered whether I should relocate my child out of the area until stubble-burning season had passed.
Going to the city wouldn’t have been an option, as conditions there were as bad, if not worse. People living in the Winnipeg area at the time were beyond inconvenienced. Those with respiratory issues were being warned to stay indoors or risk being hospitalized. Driving was treacherous due to reduced visibility as the damp autumn air, lack of wind and nighttime air effectively locked the smoke into a dense fog that clung to the landscape.
Some individuals in the farming community were recalcitrant, some notably defiant in the press about their right to farm — and burn. The whole affair was casting a long, dark shadow over the entire farming community.
Looking back, that was a turning point for the farming community, an awakening to the reality that the high regard non-farmers had traditionally held for them wasn’t unconditional — it could be shaken.
That was the year the province took the unprecedented step of declaring a seven-day state of emergency, temporarily halting what was then the common practice of burning crop residues. At the time, farmers, particularly those in the Red River Valley claimed they had no reasonable alternative to burning.
Thanks to no small measure of leadership from the farming community working through Keystone Agricultural Producers, a compromise was struck between farmers, government and city folk that would allow farmers to continue burning residue when conditions were such that the smoke would disperse.
By and large, the compromise — a function of regulation, enforcement and building a better understanding about how to manage smoke — has worked.
But farming practices have also evolved. This year, smoke was notably absent around Winnipeg. There is no question weather conditions this autumn have been a major factor. But the dry harvest conditions don’t get all the credit.
More farmers have come to accept that crop residue has value beyond the role it plays in anchoring the soil and protecting it from wind and water erosion. The rising cost of fertilizer has made the nutrients retained in that residue worth keeping around. Technology in the form of straw choppers has also improved.
Removing those residues in any fashion comes at a cost by way of lost nutrients. But if it must be removed, farmers are finding — in current market conditions anyway — that it makes sense to bale the straw and sell it.
There is another factor in play — the rise in acreage devoted to corn and soybeans, which is displacing cereal acres in the region.
This is not to suggest that stubble burning has been erased from the Manitoba landscape for good. There will undoubtedly be years or changes in market conditions that prompt some farmers to pull out the matches again. But our hunch is that it will be the exception rather than the rule.
Keeping the community feast alive — and customers safe
The volunteer committees who work tirelessly to put on the fall suppers taking place across the province have had their hands full keeping up with ever-changing rules governing food safety.
Many of these communities have been preparing and serving food without mishap for generations, so it’s hard to accept outside regulators coming in to say the way they are operating is not only illegal, but unsafe.
Food preparation skills of yesteryear — when natural selection quickly weeded out people who lacked the skills or acumen to handle food safely — weren’t standardized like they are today.
The systems of today assume the worst-case scenarios. They are designed to protect a consuming public that has come to rely on regulatory systems to replace their lack of knowledge in basic food safety skills.
The pressure this places on small community organizations that rely on these suppers as a major fundraiser can be suffocating.
As Shannon VanRaes reports, committees in the Argyle area have shared the cost of acquiring thermal carriers and rotate them through the various community suppers. It’s a way of saving money as well as improving food safety.
It’s just one of the innovative ways that communities are adapting their practices to keep their community feasts alive — and their consumers safe.