Short-term gains must not jeopardize the long term

Easy agriculture has consequences.

Farmers have always known this and that’s why for the most part, they adhere to sustainable practices.

But in these salad days of high prices for many of the main crops, it can be tempting to crank up farm operations in hopes of paying down expensive capital purchases or other farm debts more quickly. And what’s wrong with putting a little away for retirement, too?

Gary Martens, a University of Manitoba plant scientist, said in a recent edition of The Western Producer that he feels compelled to speak out.

He said too much of modern farming practices relies on a cake mix approach — just pour a mix into a bowl, add water, put it into the oven and soon a tasty cake is ready.

In applying the analogy to agriculture, Martens said he is concerned that too many farmers are using a “recipe” — a crop production system supplied by a major seed and chemical company — so that they are no longer required to think enough about sustainable practices and the long-term implications.

He points out that doing things the easy way is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can often lead to innovations when farmers and researchers direct their minds to ways that help make their jobs more productive.

But when unintended consequences creep in, society needs to take another look.

People in all walks of life continually strive to make things more efficient, effective and easier, so who can blame farmers for adopting a one-stop shopping method when it comes to buying seed and inputs? The past five years notwithstanding, farmers have struggled in recent memory to break even.

So it’s not surprising they would want to maximize profits before the cycle turns and commodity prices fall.

It is important to note that most farmers have intimate relationships with the land and are good environmental stewards, but sometimes short-term gains can overshadow the long-term picture.

Today’s cropping production systems have many benefits beyond ease of use. They are time efficient, which is important for today’s large modern operations, they can reduce fuel use through fewer field passes, offer high yielding crops and generally are effective at controlling pests.

It’s when they are over-used that problems arise.

The potential for problems down the road is obvious.

We have only to look at the clubroot disease problem in canola, which is now spreading, to see the hazards of cheating rotations in attempts to squeeze additional profits.

As well, glyphosate effectiveness is reduced as more weeds become resistant due to the over-use of the herbicide.

A diversified portfolio of crops and crop protection systems offer the best defence against resistance issues.

If choices become more limited by disease, resistant weeds and ineffective inputs, the long-term viability of farms and the welfare of the environment grow more tenuous.

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