Like thousands of prairie farmers, Lorne Scott has planted hundreds of trees on his farm near Indian Head, Sask.
He weeded and watered, and each year replaced those that didn’t survive.
The routine is similar throughout Western Canada, but after next year farmers will have to get their trees somewhere else — and pay for them.
The announcement that the federal government will end the Prairie Shelterbelt Program in 2013 caught many off guard.
The program has provided free seedlings to farmers and rural landowners from its Indian Head nursery since 1901.
In June 2008, Ottawa celebrated the planting of the program’s 600 millionth tree when now-speaker Andrew Scheer planted a seedling on a nearby farm on behalf of agriculture minister Gerry Ritz.
Ritz now says that changes in farming practices have rendered shelter-belts redundant.
However, former manager Bruce Neill said that oversimplifies the program, which provides trees not only for field shelterbelts but also for farmyards, dugouts, livestock facilities, riparian areas, wildlife plantings, and conservation and reclamation projects.
It has provided seedlings to more than 700,000 clients since its inception and still sends out more than three million trees a year to 7,000 clients.
“There still is a demand,” said Scott, who is also a former provincial environment minister and current conservation director with Nature Saskatchewan. “A lot of existing shelterbelts are old and past maturity.”
In fact, the research arm of the Agroforestry Development Centre, which will stay in place, is co-hosting a workshop this summer on shelterbelt renovation.
“The reasons that people plant trees are as varied as the number of clients that we’ve had,” Neill said.
The number of trees distributed annually has been dropping, he added, but to think that trees won’t have to be replaced is wrongheaded.
“You’ve got chemicals and technology that are available now for those kinds of soil conservation methods (that trees provided), but we’re in a high potential for quite a changing climate,” Neill said.
“How are (those methods) going to perform if you have extended droughts or other changes in the future. At least with the trees you’ve got something left in place.”
Four years ago, the government said that all the seedlings distributed by the shelterbelt centre would sequester more than 218 mega tonnes of carbon, or the equivalent of removing a year’s worth of emissions from 1.3 million SUVs.
Agriculture Canada estimates on its website that the public good from shelterbelt trees since 1981 has been worth $600 million. The value to farmers was pegged at $340 million.
Scott said it’s unrealistic to expect individual farmers to be able to afford the replacement of millions of trees that all society enjoys.
“We’re talking thousands of trees, not three or four. And then if you go out into your fields and plant them with a tree planter and planting several miles, the cost would be prohibitive,” he said.
“No matter where you go from Winnipeg to Calgary, you see trees around farmyards and invariably all of those trees came from the Indian Head shelterbelt centre during the past 110 years, so it’s impractical to think that farmers could buy enough trees to create a decent shelterbelt.”
Saskatchewan agriculture minister Bob Bjornerud said he would like to see the program continue.
“I don’t totally agree with him,” he said, referring to Ritz’s comments about shelterbelts.
“He’s right there’s some that have been ripped out and farming practices have changed, but there’s still a need.”
However, he said the province would not take over the centre. He also said Ritz has told him that he wants the private sector to operate it.
Bjornerud said a nursery of that size should provide competition to other private companies and keep prices affordable for farmers.
He said he is concerned about what happens to the facility if a private company doesn’t buy it.
Neill is worried about shelterbelt program employees.
Twenty-three jobs in nursery operations and six support positions were officially cut, but planting and harvesting seasons also employed 25 to 40 part-time people.
“When you add up the weeks of labour, it’s around 17 more full time (equivalent) people,” he said, adding those numbers don’t show up in government figures.
The centre is the biggest employer in Indian Head and finding alternate employment is a huge concern