It’s long been a dream of Manitoba farmers for an ecological goods and services program that would pay them for providing environmental benefits for the good of society at large.
The concept was first proposed by former KAP president Ian Wishart, now provincial minister of education and training, under the moniker ALUS or Alternative Land Use Services.
Manitoba led the way in 2006 with a multi-year pilot project in the former Rural Municipality of Blanshard, northwest of Brandon. It was the first time the concept had been field tested in Canada.
For a three-year period the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation, the Little Saskatchewan River Conservation District and others worked with area landowners.
Four categories were established, with varying levels of payment to producers: wetlands, natural areas, riparian areas and ecologically sensitive lands.
Landowners within the RM were able to enrol all their land in the first three categories, and up to 20 per cent of the ecologically sensitive lands on their farms, to receive annual payments.
It wasn’t free money with no strings attached. Farmers signed contracts with MASC outlining their intentions, agreed to farm visits where necessary and audits conducted to MASC standards. Manitoba Agriculture played a major role as a funder and even more crucially, a source of technical expertise.
By anyone’s standards, the program was a hit with farmers in the area. About 21,000 acres were enrolled in the program. Manitoba Agriculture figures show that more than 70 per cent of landowners participated and $1.2 million in payments were dispersed.
The program was especially successful in attracting wetland services, particularly where there was no current agricultural use, granting it protection from drainage for the length of the contract.
Since then the program has spread across the country with projects in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island. While that explosion was happening however, the concept languished for several years back home in Manitoba.
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It wasn’t until 2014 that the Little Saskatchewan River Conservation District relaunched the program, covering both the original producers and an expanded area around it that totals about one million acres.
Typical projects include seeding permanent cover on marginal cropland, riparian fencing and off-site watering systems to meet the needs of livestock while keeping them out of surface water features.
Now Manitoba farmers may have access to funding that could take efforts like this to a new level. In the recent provincial budget the province has promised a $102-million conservation trust to be placed with the Winnipeg Foundation. The annual interest goes to the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation for investment in conservation.
The idea is the endowment will provide funding in perpetuity for environmental projects within the province.
The money isn’t specifically earmarked for agriculture, but the simple truth is for it to have any meaningful impact, agriculture must play a role.
In southern Manitoba, where much of the province’s population resides, a large majority of the land base is devoted to agriculture in all its forms. Trying to make environmental gains without the involvement of the largest group of landowners would be akin to trying to improve schools without talking to either teachers or students.
What is yet to be determined is what form these efforts will take, and here we would like to make the case for farmers getting involved in the process sooner rather than later.
Some may be tempted to view the program as window dressing for a carbon tax, and give it a pass on philosophical grounds. That would be a strategic error.
The truth is carbon taxes are happening, and they’re either coming from the provinces voluntarily or are being imposed by the federal government. Neighbouring Saskatchewan’s quixotic (and likely doomed) campaign to avoid a carbon tax aside, this is happening and it is a case where it’s almost certainly going to be better to climb aboard the train than standing astride the tracks shouting ‘stop.’
Saskatchewan is already finding out its stand is an expensive one, as newly minted Premier Scott Moe finds himself making the argument that province should still receive federal funding for emissions reductions, despite being the lone holdout in Confederation.
Agriculture doesn’t want to make the same mistake here at the provincial level. The environmental trust will place an estimated $5 million on the table every year to be used for conservation purposes.
Rather than coming to the table determined to defend agriculture, farmers need to look for ways these finds might help farming and the natural environment coexist.
This is an opportunity to turn a carbon tax into a carbon benefit.