If there was ever any doubt that Canadian agriculture is a leader when it comes to exploring and sharing new ideas, that should have been put to rest following the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture.
The congress, held once every three years, draws academics and enthusiastic beginners, intensive farming experts and the organically inclined. It draws people from developing nations and from world trading powerhouses.
And this year, it came to Western Canada.
The event, held June 22-25 in Winnipeg, highlighted Canada’s generally strong place in the world when it comes to accepting key conservation practices such as no-till.
Admittedly, there is room for improvement with some of our green farming practices: better and more widespread nutrient runoff control measures, better manure management and more adoption of precision pesticide application methods, to name a few.
However, the coming together of the top people in the field shows the growing awareness and importance of conservation issues.
One story to arise from the conference was that while Canadian farmers might have been early adopters on the no-till front, that is not necessarily the case for farmers in other regions of the world.
Apparently, it comes down to whether your land is lush and fertile enough that it yields fine without it. The trouble with that kind of thinking is, of course, that it does nothing to preserve the soil for future generations. Such short-term thinking could get us into long-term trouble when it comes to feeding a growing world population. Next year’s profits must be balanced with a long-term outlook on sustainability.
Regions that experience frequent droughts or at least prolonged dry spells are more likely to be on the cutting edge when it comes to no-till because they have to be. Minimum-till farming has been one of the great agricultural success stories in generally dry Western Canada over the past three decades.
Now we need to find ways to spread the word to get the rest of the world on board. Education and agricultural outreach programs offer part of the answer to reach less educated farmers in less developed areas, but they also must include on-the-ground assistance to provide practical advice tailored to the farmer’s particular region.
Furthering the conservation agenda also requires more commitments from governments and international agencies to assist with equipment costs where necessary and to provide the latest in research information, seed technology and chemical controls. In some instances, it could be up to private companies to offer expensive new technology to poorer farmers at lower or no cost.
One thing is for sure — if we do nothing, soil fertility will continue to degrade at an alarming rate.
At lot of talk was also devoted to consumer environmental concerns and how farmers should handle them.
Howard Buffet, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, pontificated about how farmers in the United States have not been taken to task for their environmental shortcomings. He was referring especially to pollution runoff in the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Everglades and the U.S. Midwest water supplies.
He warned that the “free ride” for farmers is coming to an end.
A lot of farmers would probably offer a different point of view about that supposed “free ride,” but Buffet was highlighting a serious problem.
Still, agriculture is just one part of a complex problem. We need a broad-based approach, in which cities, municipalities, governments and other industries have a shared responsibility when it comes to conservation.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen and D’Arce McMillan collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.