SARM calls for changes to crop insurance to prevent spread of disease in canola

The debate over whether crop insurance should play a larger role in controlling canola rotations is heating up in Saskat­chewan.

Disease pressure caused significant yield losses in the province this year, and there is also concern that clubroot will migrate into the province from Alberta.

Meanwhile, producers enticed by high canola prices try to cash in by shortening rotations, which industry observers say makes the industry vulnerable to disease.

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities recently passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to change Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. policies so that coverage is denied for canola grown on canola stubble.

SARM vice-president Raymond Orb, who introduced the motion at the association’s midterm convention in November, said he believes producers who do not follow industry recommended practices put the industry at risk.

Orb is concerned clubroot will become established in Saskatchewan.

“We want to minimize the risk of diseases in the municipalities as much as we can. We think if farmers can’t get crop insurance coverage if they seed canola back-to-back, this would deter them from doing it,” he said.

Such insurance schemes already exist in the U.S. southern Plains, where the United States Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency has special provisions in the region’s insurance policy that denies coverage for canola grown back-to-back.

Jeff Scott, president of Great Plains Canola, a growers association based in Oklahoma, said farmers grow winter wheat and winter canola in the region so their crops are in the field for up to nine months, allowing little time for diseases to decay in the field.

“It’s a safeguard that has been put in place that has worked well for us,” Scott said.

“If we repeated back-to-back we wouldn’t get any residue breakdown so the blackleg spores would be there, readily available to attack the next crop.”

Venkata Vakulabharanam, a member of Saskatchewan Agriculture’s clubroot management initiative and an oilseed specialist in the ministry, said producers should grow plants susceptible to the disease only once every four years.

Rotations alone will not stop clubroot’s spread because it is a soil born disease and spores can be brought into the field by vehicles and farm equipment. However, longer crop rotations restrict disease development by limiting the increase of clubroot spores.

Vakulabharanam, who has studied canola growing trends in Saskatchewan and presented his findings at the SaskCanola 2012 producer conference, said canola rotations in the province are becoming shorter and canola-on-canola cropping is becoming more common.

“We see the rotations are shortening, but there is still a healthy number of growers who do one in four crop rotations for canola,” Vakulabharanam said.

Saskatchewan agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said he agrees that farmers who push their rotations put other canola growers at risk.

“Growing canola back-to-back is a bad agronomic practice. I don’t think there is any question about that,” Stewart said.

“The downside of having a serious clubroot problem in the province is the virtual destruction of the canola industry in the province.”

However, Stewart said the government doesn’t like to be “big brother” and prefers the industry to lead in addressing situations such as this.

“We haven’t heard much from the industry on this particular issue, but it is something that has been tossed around by myself and crop insurance people. I’m sure it will continue to be a matter of discussion,” Stewart said.

SaskCanola chair Brett Halstead said tighter canola rotations probably have exposed the industry to increased risk because rotations play a large role in the prevalence of diseases such as sclerotinia.

However, the organization doesn’t plan to lobby the government to create an insurance scheme that discourages producers from growing canola back to back.

“We aren’t in favour of denying insurance,” he said.

“We would rather educate producers of what the best rotations are and also let the market dictate. Like coming next year, wheat returns will potentially be as good as canola returns, so wheat acres will likely increase.”

Halstead said it isn’t economical to shorten rotations too much because yields will dwindle and inputs will increase.

SaskCanola recommends a one in four rotation.

Halstead said crop insurance can already potentially deny compensation if producers don’t follow industry recommended practices and make a claim in an area where no one else has problems.

Jeff Morrow, vice-president of Sask­atchewan Crop Insurance Corp., said the company has denied coverage in the past to farmers who don’t follow recommended practices, but it is difficult to accurately track how many denied claims were the result of poor rotation programs.

“We do have the tools available in our program to deny those claims if there are producers who are really pushing things and are not doing what industry recommends to mitigate those risks.”

He said denying crop insurance for canola grown back to back is on the agency’s radar because the insurer realizes producers do shorten their rotations for economic reasons.

Morrow said crop insurance will continue to work with the industry to make sure insurance reflects what the industry wants.

The insurance company hasn’t done an analysis of its risk from shortened canola rotations, he added.

The SARM motion is now before the provincial government, which can accept or deny it. If it is denied, Orb said there is a good chance rural councillors will pass a similar motion in the future and continue to pressure the government to change crop insurance rules.