Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Saying What Needs to be Said

I've written about this before and probably will again. It was prompted by a timely CBC news story that included a man who challenges all around him, even those who really like him.  Ranald MacFarlane is beloved by the media.  He's clever, often outrageous,  and most importantly for me not just talks the talk, but walks the walk. He's farming differently than his neighbours, and doesn't mind telling anyone who listens why. Most pigs are raised in confined, disease free concrete bunkers. At Pleasant Pork in downtown Fernwood they lead a much more natural existence, almost Club Med for pigs. They have small shelters full of straw, but live mostly outside, with electric fencing the only thing keeping them from roaming free. The pigs root around in the dirt, build up good muscle tone which leads to very tasty meat. Ranald MacFarlane happily criticizes almost everything linked to agribusiness which he's convinced has impoverished farmers, while supplying poor quality food to consumers. In February he looked inward to talk about some of the soil management practices that leads to tons of soil erosion every year. I wrote this column about his comments.

Follow the Dirt

This has nothing to do with politics. I’m talking about the real stuff,  the soil we grow things in.

Do you remember this:  “Our soils are at risk. Our future is eroding. It is time for action." It was written almost thirty years ago by Senator Herb Sparrow, the chair of a senate committee  that studied soil erosion in Canada.  He found it everywhere in the country where the plow had broken through sod. 

PEI is essentially a large farm, broken up by bedroom communities,  small cities and towns. We live very closely together here, so we’re much more aware of  eroding soils. We see it clearly mixed in, or on top of fresh white snow, we see it in ditches and waterways in the Spring when the water starts running. 

It takes between 300 to 500 years to produce an inch of soil, but it can be lost very quickly. At it's worst 10 tons of soil per acre moves from bare fields in a wet spring. It's the fine particles and organic matter that get lost first. Both are essential to productivity. Even in strict dollar terms,  hundreds of dollars of nutrients leach from fields, and end up in waterways fertilizing sea lettuce and other algae which cause the anoxic rivers we see during the summer. None of this is good.

Many farmers take steps to slow down this erosion, planting cover crops in the Fall, or spreading straw to lessen the impact of moving water, but why are so many fields still bare going into the winter?

A few things: the Russet Burbank potato, that beautiful, versatile mainstay of the industry takes 130 days and more to mature which pushes harvest well into October and November, no time to plant a cover crop. Plant breeding is working on earlier season varieties with similar characteristics, that can’t come too soon. It’s the same issue with soybeans, which are becoming the newest go-to crop. It gets harvested late in the Fall too.

Fall plowing is something farmers have more control over, they can do it or not. The temptation is to do this work in the Fall because fields with sod or hay need time to break down the organic matter, and time is often in short supply in a wet cold Spring.  It’s one of these things that needs to be tackled like smoking or drunk driving, make it something that farmers feel they shouldn’t do. Maybe the risk and cost of waiting to plow until the Spring could be lessened with an ALUS payment, or included in what’s covered with crop insurance, which already looks at yield and quality as a benchmark for a payout.

Ferndale farmer Ranald  MacFarlane dared talk about these things publically in a television news story recently (Ranald is no stranger to controversy, and the media, at least, loves his strait talk about difficult issues).  He included himself as part of the problem, and said he had to change the way he does things, and so do other farmers.   I think he’s right.  Herb Sparrow was right thirty years ago.

1 comment:

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