Amid the extensive coverage local and national media provided recently of high water on the Assiniboine River, one phrase kept echoing in my memory, “Never waste a crisis.”
General Rick Hillier, retired Canadian chief of defence staff, uttered that profound advice and it is something Manitoba farmers should take to heart.
For a moment we should put the recent issues aside and look at the larger picture.
Since settlers first spread across this land of Manitoba, farmers have been minding the rural environment for society with the assumption they would do what is best; to maintain a healthy balance of landscapes that provide benefits of food production as well as moderating climatic variations.
Over the past several decades, we have been collectively decreasing the resilience of our landscape to handle this climatic variation. Drainage has been undertaken to increase arable acres; a culture that was brought with the first European settlers. This was considered progress. But has this approach reached a level of diminishing return?
More recently, society has begun to question whether farmers are doing such a good job and have implemented various regulations to direct certain practices on the landscape to what are intended to be more sustainable. These regulations, with a few exceptions, have been accepted as necessary and good, as not all practices on the farm in past decades have been environmentally acceptable.
Given these recent restrictions on land use, by society, should not society begin to pay farmers for their work as stewards of the land? If we want to direct land management practices of farmers then it is my humble opinion we should begin to contribute to the costs farmers incur to manage land to society’s sustainable standard.
Back to the recent flood coverage. As farmers were pushed on stage, lights on and given a microphone, they were speaking to Manitobans and Canadians. This is your chance to tell your story.
You produce food for domestic and export markets while managing the environment on behalf of Canadians. A few farmers south of Portage stored water on behalf of Headingley and Winnipeg residents while many farmers north of Portage and around Lake Manitoba are storing water on behalf of the same residents.
You need to be paid for this service to the extent that the Portage Diversion has elevated lake levels. I challenge our water services personnel to calculate how deep water would be at Portage and Main today without the Portage Diversion. Farmers should not have to bear any costs to save our city cousins from flooding; that is not how a just society works.
Currently, most farmers derive revenue from sale of products they raise. It is unacceptable to our society to limit farm production to raise the price of food. Consequently, farmers increase revenue with more arable land, resulting in more grain to sell and so it has been our (Manitobans’) choice to allow drainage of land to grow more grain.
A choice made that not only allows land to be drained but subsidizes that drainage, as all drainage costs are deducted against profits. It is this drainage that has, in part created the flood of 2011 on the Assiniboine River. Instead of paying farmers to drain land, we should be paying them to store water and thus improving the quality of life for everyone, including farmers.
To the powers that make these policy choices on our behalf, pay farmers to manage the environment to the benefit of all. Specifically, design policy that stores water on the landscape, pay farmers to store that water which will reduce flooding in the future, and cut drainage subsidies. To farmers, do not waste this crisis, forecasters suggest this is a one-in-300- year flood. That’s a long time to wait for another opportunity like this.
Terry Fehr farms
Asfarmerswerepushedonstage,lights onandgivenamicrophone,theywere speakingtoManitobansandCanadians. Thisisyourchancetotellyourstory.