Clubroot stigma may help spread the canola disease

It is the news that any farmer dreads: a field of canola doesn’t look right. Samples are sent off, there is a desperate feeling of hope, but the truth is obvious: tests confirm the presence of clubroot.

This process isn’t confined to canola, but unlike say, fusarium in wheat, discovery of clubroot seems to bring with it a stigma that shouldn’t be accepted in modern farming.

For the most part, many farmers can say, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Nobody wants to be tagged with being a bad farmer who allowed this terrible scourge to get into his field. It could even spread to the neighbours. Do you keep it quiet?

That hinders research efforts, and it is unfair to neighbouring farmers.

All this comes to mind with the discovery of clubroot in Alberta’s Rocky View County. The area had gone 10 years from 2007-17 without seeing the disease.

Southern Alberta south of Rocky View is widely irrigated and farmers there have greater options for crop rotations, so the practice of “canola-snow-canola” is less common. As a result, clubroot hasn’t been a problem.

Yet here it is.

The reaction of Canola Council of Canada agronomy specialist Autumn Barnes is telling: “I’m so grateful that the grower was brave enough to come forward.”

It should not take bravery for farmers to reveal knowledge of clubroot in a field. It should be responsible farming.

Yet the discussion sure sounds like a stigma.

And once it’s reported, it’s hard to conceal the field involved. Clubroot is considered a pest in Alberta and Saskatchewan, so municipalities have the power to issue orders. The farmer’s field will likely be surveyed more often, and so will the fields around that property. It’s natural for neighbouring farmers to ask the farmer with the infected field what he or she is doing to manage it, but blame doesn’t help.

Some have compared the discovery of clubroot to the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance.

Even the farmer’s property can be stigmatized, resulting in lower land values. Land is a farmer’s largest asset, so it can used as collateral for future investment. Devaluing that land can make things more difficult, especially for leasing it out.

It’s known that proper rotations and clubroot-resistant seeds are the two major factors in preventing spread of the disease, so a farmer may even have feelings of guilt over tight rotations. (Though there are generally accepted rotation principles, experts also agree that defining an appropriate rotation for a field depends on many factors.)

It’s difficult to pin down where clubroot came from. It can arrive on the feet of visitors or even on all-terrain vehicles. Soil containing spores can drop from equipment that has worked in an infected field. Now it’s been discovered to have spread on some seeds.

There is an understandable temptation for a farmer with clubroot to keep things quiet. Most years, canola is the most profitable crop available, and despite the yield loss in a clubroot-infested field, a farmer can still plant canola and make decent money the next year.

So farmers who do come forward should be recognized for their consideration and honesty rather than be branded for something that may not have been their doing.

Researchers say clubroot can be managed if they know where it is.

There is no crop version of shoot, shovel and shut up. Clubroot is part of our reality. We need to address it as such.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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