Farmers welcome budget’s low-carbon focus

Ottawa allocates about $270 million to encourage producers to adopt lower-carbon and climate-friendly practices

The recent federal budget represents a turning point for farmers, says a Saskatchewan producer who helped draft recommendations funded in the document.

About $270 million allocated to encourage farmers to adopt lower-carbon and climate-friendly practices will also serve as a bridge to the next agricultural policy framework, said Ian McCreary from Bladworth, Sask.

He said the money in this budget recognizes agriculture’s role in mitigating climate change.

“This is the first time that a government has said if we’re going to make changes in climate, change in agriculture, the decision maker is the farmer so we have to provide support for farmers and space for farmers to make those decisions,” he said in an interview. “I think that’s a turning point. It sends the signal about the environment back to the farmgate. It starts the process.”

McCreary co-chaired a task force for Farmers For Climate Solutions, a group of farmers, agricultural economists and scientists who developed recommendations for Ottawa. They asked for $300 million for initiatives to reduce nitrogen use, increase cover cropping, make rotational grazing more common, protect wetlands and trees on farms, and transition farms to clean energy through pilot programs.

The budget made $200 million available for the nitrogen, cover crop and rotational grazing programs, $60 million for the wetlands program and $10 million for clean energy.

Federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the funds acknowledge the level of risk farmers face as they transition to new production methods.

“This little added financial push could be the difference between having only a few dedicated farmers and a significant number making this transition because we would be kind of sharing the risk with them with this financial support,” she said in an interview.

Bibeau said Ottawa is expanding its Living Labs project to get researchers and scientists in the field with farmers to make sure farmers’ needs are met and progress is measured.

McCreary said these measures go hand-in-hand.

“One of the things we really encourage is tight monitoring,” he said. “This program has to be viewed in parallel with the government’s decision that was announced earlier to expand the Living Labs program so that new approaches can be intensely measured because the literature and the science on a number of these is not complete.”

Partnerships among farmers, government and industry will provide the required evaluation and measurement of new approaches.

For example, he said cover cropping is currently where direct seeding was in the early 1980s: people are experimenting and the opportunity appears significant.

Research in southern Alberta has found “huge blasts of nitrous oxide” from lentil stubble after harvest in August as the plant deteriorates, he said. Getting a cover crop into that field would prevent that.

“We’ve started experimenting with that on our farm, knifing in oats right after the combine if the soil is moist,” McCreary said.

Rotational grazing is perhaps more commonplace, although some areas are further ahead than others.

“We absolutely have to start to farm differently,” McCreary said, noting that scientists have been warning of this for 40 years. “We can’t use the amount of synthetic nitrogen and use it the way we’re using it now and expect to be called sustainable. I think it’s that black and white.

“It’s going to be a bit of a journey and we’ve got to figure out how to do it without losing the advantages that we’ve gained through plant breeding and yield enhancements and all the other stuff.”

McCreary sees the money set aside for wetlands, including a reverse auction process similar to what the United States Department of Agriculture used in the 1980s to protect areas, as most critical. He said wetland protection isn’t occurring and that is a vulnerability to prairie agriculture.

“That’s a huge carbon blow-off and it’s also a huge threat to biodiversity,” he said of wetland destruction.

McCreary, who has been involved in trade and policy development for 40 years, said he doesn’t think the task force recommendations were ideological and he hopes the debate doesn’t turn that way. Participation is voluntary and all political parties have acknowledged the need for action.

“Nothing about this is ideological. This is about looking at the business case, at the farmgate level, and figuring out the types of supports that have to be provided to make these changes a good business decision at the farm level.”

McCreary also said this package links to the next Canadian Agricultural Partnership because any redirection comes in those five-year agreements.

“By and large, most of the horsepower in agriculture exists at the provincial level and so what we needed to do was to define a number of the low-hanging fruit pieces that could be worked at and define an amount that was programmable in the bridge period between now and the initiation of the next CAP,” he said.

Farm organizations welcomed what many of them called unprecedented funding for agriculture.

The Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, which is a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions, said the money indicates that Ottawa knows the role farmers play in tackling greenhouse gases.

Andre Harp, chair of Grain Growers of Canada, said farmers look forward to hearing more details of how these programs will work.

Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Mary Robinson added that agriculture is the “natural climate solution” and continued research and adoption of technology will put the sector “in a unique position of becoming a net carbon sink while being a powerful engine of economic growth for Canada.”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association also highlighted agriculture’s position to lead a new sustainable economy.

“We note the budget included land conservation efforts and it is important that grasslands that are such a vital part of the working landscape are included in these policies, particularly as other government policies may lead to the unintended consequence of further grassland conversion,” said president Bob Lowe.

Meanwhile, grain growers are waiting for further details on the budget’s $100-million program to refund natural gas and propane costs for grain drying. There is also $50 million to purchase dryers that operate on cleaner energy and $10 million for barn heating systems.

Bibeau said a straight carbon tax exemption for grain drying, which many had asked for, wasn’t in the cards because the price on pollution has to be acknowledged by everyone.

The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association described the budget as “not based in reality.”

“It is staggering to think that the federal government wants grain farmers to adopt commercially available clean technology by moving off diesel and assist with the purchase of more efficient grain dryers,” said Saskatchewan director Margaret Hansen. “This is an odd proposal and suggests that the farmers don’t already adopt the newest innovations that have proven benefits…which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

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