Improving the Prairie

I remember getting my face sandblasted during the drought of the late 1980s. That would happen anywhere in downtown Regina, where the grit and dust and dirt of farm country blew through in ugly blasts, filling a young city lad's eyes.

I remember seeing dirt-drifted ditches across farm country in those days, and my dad having to slow or stop his car on country roads in those days if the wind was too high and visibility too poor due to the soil blowing across the landscape on a particularly windy day. I remember how filthy many streams and rivers were, clogged and either brown or green, and stinking. Farm country could seem like a disaster zone in those day, and it was. Those sporadic years of drought combined with low prices post-1982 were not just an economic disaster, which ravaged the Prairie economy, but also an environmental disaster, which saw decades of endless tillage combined with overfertilization and other (in hindsight) reckless agricultural practices adding up to a vast devastation of Saskatchewan's environment, natural resources and agricultural potential. Farm country, host to a rich ecosystem since the ice age, was becoming synonymous with "wasteland."

But it was also the time when farmers, researchers, environmentalists (the term wasn't used then), and public officials began developing the toolbox of techniques, methods and systems that has had such a stunningly wonderful affect across Western Canada's farmland. These days catching sight of drifting soil is an exceedingly rare event. Ditches are more troubled by an overabundance of plant growth than dirt. Most streams and rivers are much cleaner than in the past, with few streams and rivers manifesting the fetid "moving swamp" appearance of the old days. There is still environmental destruction happening in some places, with sloughs being drained, marginal land cleared and shelter belts razed. But in general, the farmland of the Prairies has been transformed from a near-wasteland to a rich space for crops, livestock and other living things. One of those forms of living things is the farm family, and while the farm population has continued to decline, those still farming are doing it in an immeasurably improved environment.

Arron Nerbas of Shellmouth, Manitoba, walks through a rich pasture in the Assiniboine River valley

Many farmers have protected the soil, safeguarded waterways and worked to preserve patches of wilderness on their farms, improving the prairie from where it was in the 1980s, but I get the sense that few people appreciate this. The changes have occurred slowly, incrementally over decades, and it's easy to take for granted the enormous changes that have occurred. It is, however, a much different and improved world.

I was struck by this during the summer, as I drove around the eastern half of the Prairies on a few trips. We're in the midst of an awful drought - the worst since the 1980s - and yet the land does not seem dead. There's no wasteland out there. It's a bad year, and a bad few years on the western half of the Prairies, but once the drought has passed, there's no question the land can bounce back, the rivers re-fill with relatively clean water, and the cattle and wild critters once more have an abundance of things to eat. Despite the near-absence of rainfall, there are crops in many areas.

So I've decided to do a series looking at the many things farmers have done and are doing to create this reality of a protected environment and a truly sustainable farming system evolving across much of Western Canada's farmland. Much has been done, but there is still a huge amount of room for farming systems to become simultaneously more productive, more protected and more rewarding. I'm going to go out and see with my own eyes, and hopefully bring to your eyes and awareness, examples of the work farmers are doing to protect their farms' soil, water and environments. I've just begun my visits to farms, but already I'm finding much to be excited about, and much to write about.

For the first instalment in the Improving the Prairies series, click on this:

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