Stewardship program to be flexible: Sask minister

Eligibility criteria | NFU says the 320-acre rule would exclude market gardeners, fruit growers or other specialty producers

Changes to a government program that pays Saskatchewan producers to adopt environmentally friendly farming practices discriminate against small farmers, says the National Farmers Union.

The Canada-Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Program provides financial incentives to farmers who implement beneficial management practices that protect soil, water and air quality.

A maximum of $50,000 is available to producers who qualify under the program, but small farmers who own or control less two quarter sections of land may not be eligible.

Eligible farmers must control at least 320 acres of farmland and earn a minimum of $35,000 in farm income.

Provincial agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said eligibility criteria for the program are similar to those used in other programs, such as the Farm and Ranch Water Infrastructure Program, which provides assistance for farmers and ranchers who develop secure water sources as a means of mitigating the impact of drought.

“We chose that (eligibility criteria) because … the intent was to target the programming to people who make a significant portion of their living from farming and to avoid scarce programming dollars being spent on acreages,” Stewart said.

Farmers who control fewer than 320 acres might still qualify for funding, he added, but they will have to prove that they are operating a commercially viable farming operation.

“The average farm size in this province is now 1,668 acres — that’s five times the 320 acre criteria — but if a specialty operator with less than 320 acres can show that they have a commercially viable farming operation, they will be considered on a case-by-case basis for program eligibility as well,” Stewart said.

NFU president Terry Boehm, who farms near Allan, Sask., said programs that establish eligibility criteria based on size and income can discourage new entrants into agriculture.

“I think it’s a fundamental error on the part of governments because smaller farms are where new entrants come into the game,” Boehm said.

New farmers are often smaller and less likely to meet the $35,000 income threshold established under the program, he said.

The 320-acre rule, if rigidly enforced, would also exclude operators such as market gardeners, fruit growers and specialty producers who grow crops or raise livestock intensively on a relatively small land base.

“If you’re serious about doing some forms of environmental improvement within agriculture, why would you eliminate this category?” Boehm said.

Statistics from the 2011 Census of Agriculture suggest that Saskatchewan had 37,000 census farms in May 2011. Of those, 6,700, or 18 percent, were listed as having 240 acres or less.

Statistics from 2006 show that more than 25 percent of the province’s farms had farm receipts of $25,000 or less.

Stewart said program administrators will be as flexible as possible in determining eligibility.

The revamped program offers payments for 13 beneficial management practices under six categories, in-cluding manure, land, pest, irrigation and livestock site management and precision farming.

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