Farm data can change sector’s future

You have likely been in a situation where you put in long hours of hard work dedicated to achieving a goal, yet have not been recognized for your efforts.

It certainly leaves us feeling frustrated.

Canadian farmers know this feeling all too well. Over the past 25 years, they have worked hard to adopt sustainable, on-farm practices such as zero-tillage and the removal of summerfallow from their crop rotations.

These adoptions have led to a reduction in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and improved carbon sequestration. Yet these efforts are unrecognized by policy-makers, politicians and the public.

In climate change discussions, agriculture is often framed as a large greenhouse gas emitter. Carbon sequestration, in which Canadian agricultural land removes carbon from the air, storing it in the soil, is often minimized or missed altogether in emission models.

Carbon exchange between the atmosphere and soil is commonly modelled in forestry and ecological models, but agricultural emission models tend to focus on methane and nitrous oxide, minimizing the impact of carbon sequestration.

An additional challenge is that much of agriculture has already significantly reduced its environmental impact. Unfortunately, many of these changes were adopted prior to current Canadian climate initiatives, suggesting the strides made within the agricultural industry are not properly accounted for.

Numerous organizations have been critical of modern agricultural practices, lobbying to have costly regulations placed on agriculture or banning agricultural products.

These regulations and bans can also affect public perceptions, which have been shown to impact policy decisions. Thus, before implementing policy changes to combat climate change, policy-makers need data for farm adoption of beneficial technologies and practices, and the resulting environmental impacts.

Yet in Canada, no thorough dataset exists capable of providing evidence that would prevent costly new climate or environmental regulations from being placed on Canadian farmers. Current research from the University of Saskatchewan aims to fill this gap.

The Crop Rotation Survey, led by Stuart Smyth and his research team from the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources, collects information on the progress made by Saskatchewan farmers toward environmental sustainability over the past 25 years. The survey collects data on crop rotation and land management practices before 1995, when herbicide tolerant crops were first commercialized, zero-tillage was being more broadly adopted, and the pesticide and fertilizer industries were innovating toward better integration and targeting, as well as from farmers’ most recent crop rotations.

The Crop Rotation Survey is split into four components, each capturing different elements of crop production. The first follows the seed from planting through to harvest, the second focuses on fertilizer applications, the third on tillage and summerfallow, and the fourth on chemical use. The surveys are structured to capture data from crop production on one specific field, including crops planted, input use and application rates, equipment used, and crop yields. Together, the data from the four survey components will provide a comprehensive overview of the on-farm practices employed by Saskatchewan farmers, documenting sustainability improvements following the adoption of innovative technologies.

Participation in the Crop Rotation Survey is entirely online.

The data collected from the survey will allow for measurement of the sustainable improvements of Saskatchewan farmers, or identification of existing gaps that could improve sustainable measures.

This information can be used by the broader agriculture industry to provide evidence to policy-makers, governments, and the public of how Canadian agriculture has already reduced carbon emissions and contributed to improved land and soil quality.

All Saskatchewan farmers are encouraged to register to complete the survey online at www.surveymonkey.ca/r/CRSregistration2020 during the week of their choosing between November and December.

Though the survey collects data from both 1991-94 and 2016-19, farmers do not need to have been farming in both periods to participate. Participants who complete all four components of the survey will be compensated $200.

Chelsea Sutherland and Stuart Smyth are members of the University of Saskatchewan’s department of agricultural and resource economics.

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