End of an era for shelterbelt program

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

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  • Linda

    I truly hope that they will re-think this . There is no possible way that farmers and rural dwellers who qualify for the shelter belt program could ever afford to plant as many trees as they have in the past if this is squashed. The program is vital for agriculture be it livestock or grain , yes farming is different now compared to years gone by but I know I still don’t want my topsoil blowing to the neighbors or vice versa I’m sure. The wildlife that have habitat in these belts should also be considered , the oxygen that is put inot the atmosphere from said belts and rejuvenation of the eco system shouldn’t be ignored either.
    Why do you want to take something away, once again , that can and does only good things all around ? I will never understand the powers to be , nor do I think I want to .

    Very dissapointed

  • John Froh

    I would think that in the current age of carbon credits and greenhouse gas targets that the shelterbelt program was an easy win for the gov’t for a relative pittance compared to other programs. Some of the climate predictions for the prairies over the next 50 years are downright scary and I would think encouraging drought tolerant shelterbelts may be a really good idea. Does anyone in gov’t remember the 30s. I’ve hear old timers talk about dust storms that moved fields of topsoil. A little forward thinking please Mr. Harper.

  • I grow trees for a living. In one sense closing this program is great. I’ll be one of the guys filling in the slack.

    But it’s wrong. We are faced with a rapidly changing climate. We need government research to find new trees to replace old ones. Part of that is getting the trees out there to see if they work.

    We have private industry growing trees here in Alberta. The result of Marketland taking over the seedling production for rural dwellers has resulted in $2-$3 per seedling prices. Given that conifer seedlings typically cost 20-40 cents each to produce, deciduous about half again more, someone is making out like a bandit.

    (For what it’s worth: I sell small lots of seedlings to people who either don’t qualify or didn’t apply for PFRA’s program, or who want species that PFRA doesn’t supply. I make money selling them at $1 to $1,75 depending on quantity.)

    I hope that the Gov’mint changes it’s mind. I won’t hold my breath.

    • Terry

      Sherwood’s comments do not represent a fair comparison of product size, age or price to produce seedlings. He seems quite familar with forestry work but I doubt he has ever tried to grow a 3 year old lilac shrub, harvest it, bundle it and ship it to one of 70 destinations across the Prairies all for $2.00 a bundle of 10. Commentary based on fact contributes to the discussion. Please be informed. The nursery trade has long suffered from the governments free tree policy. There are only a handful of bareroot growers in all of the western provinces as a consequence.

    • Marcus

      Sherwood, I’m confused here…

      From your website:
      “Most of our trees are priced by the foot or by the pot size. At the bottom of each page is an approximate inventory of what we have, and how we price it. Typically most deciduous trees are $4 per foot, most conifers $8 per foot. Shrubs and smaller trees are priced by the pot. If the tree is a fast grower, and is easy for me to raise at the farm, I charge less for it.”

      After digging through your site, and comparing what I’d get from the Shelterbelt program to what you sell, I’d be paying between 15-50x the price through your company. That, good sir, is cost prohibitive if you’re in my situation and needing to build a shelterbelt for a quarter section + farm site.

      Perhaps you could clarify as to how your company will provide me a bundle of 10 seeldings for $2.00, give or take.

  • Holly

    I just can’t believe that the government is going to end this program. We recently moved to a farm where the shelterbelt is very old and needs to be built up. Also we use surface water for our main water supply. We were going to plant a shelter belt around our dugout to protect our water supply. But now we won’t be able to carry out these improvements.

    I remember my Dad telling stories of growing up in the thirties and how when he went to school in the morning the fence was in the ground, but when he went home the barbed wire fence was hanging there all the dirt blew away. These are the scenes we will be able to look forward to with out the shelterbelt program in place to prevent it.

    With out this program the old shelterbelts will not be able to be maintained and the prairies will eventually revert back into a bleak and barren waste land as it must have been during the thirties.

    I am sickened by this horrible news. I really hope some one will wake up and fix this.

  • Concerned

    There’s a reason this has been around for a century. And the need is still there. This is the stupidest thing I’ve heard of in a long time.

  • Alberta Farmer

    I am very concerned with the cutting of this program. In southern alberta we have very strong winds that blow many times a year especially in the spring and fall at over 100km/hr. The past couple days I have looked out my front window to a big dust cloud over 30 kms long. When there are grassland fires large amounts of topsoil are being lost. There is also different soil types in our areas that are very prone to wind erosion. Conservation tillage has helped reduce the affects of soil erosion but the loss is still significant today in areas especially in the areas west of lethbridge. Our farmstead has had populars planted in the past with this program and needs to replace them once the shelterbelt gets too old and dies off. I believe that these shelterbelts are vital to honey bee habitat as well and will have significant costs into the future if the this program isn’t supported. Providing a cost effective trees is still will provide substantial conservation benefits for the land which is needs to be supported by the government as they generate benefit from it too.

  • Sincere

    What a terrible shame to see this valuable program discontinued. In today’s ‘Green Society’ I find it UNBELIEVABLE that the government thought this to be a good choice. Somehow I think if more people were aware of this, the government would be forced to rethink this, and put this program back in place.

  • Agriculture Minister puts pastures and tree belts on the chopping block.
    It’s apparent that Gerry Ritz, born in 1951, never had to deal with the dry and wind years of the 1930’s,when never ending dust clouds, grasshoppers, and no rain settled on the dry prairies.
    The settler / farmers of those years knew if they were to survive, changes had to be taken in their farming methods to try and stop their land base from being blown away.

    The tree and shrub belts were a beginning, but also a challenge, as the scarcity of water, even for themselves and livestock, resulted in many failures and setbacks for the newly planted trees.
    But eventually, conditions improved and the trees and shelter belts began to flourish. And they were successful.
    For not only to help prevent the loss of precious topsoil,those shelter belts became a refuge and a haven for wildlife, a nesting area and food for birds.
    Yes, with modern farming methods and large machinery, they have become somewhat of a nuisance to the aggressive farmers of to-day, so they are ripped away, piled and burned. What was so important, is now destroyed in a few days.

    Now the Minister has proclaimed that shelter belts and pastures are not the way of the future, in that stubble fields and continuous cropping is the salvation. A foolish proclaimation, in my opinion.
    I guess he’s been in touch with Nature at the highest level, and been assured that drought years and winds are only a past memory and will never return to challenge, even the modern farmers of to-day.
    I suggest that his crystal ball is due for a cleaning and a complete overhaul,
    If we don’t learn “something” from lessons of the past, it’s difficult to venture into the unknown future.


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