Trees are just too boring

It was 12 years ago now, back when civil servants could still express an opinion without having their comments vetted through the prime minister’s office. The government of the time, through some now-forgotten body called the Canadian Agri-Food Marketing Council, had for some reason decided that Canada needed to set a goal of increasing Canada’s share of world agri-food trade to four per cent by 2005.

The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), one of the finest organizations, public or private, in this country’s history (it arguably saved Western Canada from becoming a desert) decided to analyze whether such a goal was possible and sustainable. It assembled a group of civil servants, farmers and academics to produce the Prairie Agricultural Landscapes (PAL) report. It produced an extensive analysis of the health of Prairie soil and water, much of which remains relevant today. The quality of its research was enhanced by something which is all too rare in reports from government and academia — good writing, editing and layout. In other words, it was written in plain English, a fitting complement to the PFRA’s style of delivering applied research that actually worked on the farm.

The PAL report suggested that reaching that export goal might not be quite so sustainable. Perhaps its conclusions were the last straw, as the PFRA was not long after absorbed into Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, merged with other departments and given the soulless name of “Agri-Environment Services Branch.”

The PAL report came to mind when noting the last-ditch petition to request Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to reverse the decision to terminate the 110-year-old tree program at Indian Head. It would have been one thing had he said something like, “In these times of fiscal restraint, government has to make hard decisions and…”

But no. As he had done with the wheat board, Ritz simply dismissed the tree program as a relic of the past, saying farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago and they don’t need shelterbelts to prevent erosion anymore.

Not so fast, said the PAL report.

“Universal adoption of reduced-tillage and low-disturbance seeding systems will not eliminate soil erosion. Soils will still be exposed to high erosion risk after low-residue crops (such as the three-million-acre-plus increase in lentils and soybeans since the PAL report?) drought, disease or excessive straw harvesting. Permanent soil-conservation practices are required to supplement crop-residue management systems. Further work is needed to identify areas which are unsuitable for annual crop production and those areas that should be protected with perennial forages or windbreaks.”

And should we need more evidence of the benefits, we need only check out what’s still on the AAFC website.

“Studies from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and North and South Dakota reveal that fields protected by mature shelterbelts develop an average yield increase of 3-1/2 per cent for wheat and up to 6-1/2 per cent for alfalfa. These figures include land taken out of production for shelterbelt planting and the competition of the shelterbelt with the crop, two factors which can partially offset gains in yield.”

As for livestock, “When planted as shelterbelts, trees can reduce wind velocity, greatly diminishing the effect of cold temperatures on livestock. This can significantly lower stress on animals and, consequently, reduce feed energy requirements. “As for feeding them, “A 20 per cent increase in yields for alfalfa can be expected with the use of shelterbelts.”

And according to the website, the four million trees planted in 2008 will:

  •  Sequester 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 by 2058.
  •  Protect the equivalent of 1,136 farmyards.
  •  Protect 24,000 hectares of cropland.
  •  Provide at least $2 million worth of crop benefits.
  •  Protect over 265 hectares of wildlife lands.
  •  Prevent soil erosion and conserve 4.35 million tonnes of topsoil valued at over $21 million.

That’s pretty impressive, but perhaps planting trees to capture carbon and do all those other things is just not sexy enough these days. Despite claims of fiscal tightening, the Harper government is not shy about issuing press releases about funding new projects. Mr. Ritz has released 19 so far this month, nine of which involve a total of $3.7 million in funding for projects such as hemp processing, tilapia farming, trucking, floraculture and producing plant extracts. And speaking of capturing carbon, that’s one of the benefits claimed in an Oct. 12 announcement of $820,000 to a Calgary company to grow a “useful high-value crop” — algae from engine exhaust.

Interesting idea, but can it capture as much carbon as one year’s planting of boring old trees?

By the way, one of the company’s partners is energy giant Encana. It had $8.5 billion in revenue last year.

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