Thursday, 27 June 2013

So What's Going on Here

It's been a constant complaint for years by people concerned with the environmental impact of farming: the unwillingness of governments (of both stripes) to push for or enforce a regulation requiring a minimum three-year rotation. That changed (maybe?) in mid-June when three West Prince farmers were in fact charged. Two, Warren Ellis and Avard Smallman,  had already been charged with violations of buffer zone regulations after a fish kill. The third is Sweet Farms in O'Leary.  Here's how the charges read:

“did, without management plan or permit, unlawfully plant a regulated crop on area of land greater than 1.0 hectare at any time for more than one calendar year in any three consecutive calendar years.”

I asked an official close to the situation if the government really is serious about ensuring three-year rotations and got a very strange answer, that it had been complaints from other farmers that had led to these charges. So what have we got here:  politically the government doesn't appear as the heavy (it was farmers ratting out other farmers after all, and two were already tagged as environmental laggards)  but a message gets sent that something has changed.  Then a couple of days later word that the Federation of Agriculture was educating and advising farmers about the workings of the Crop Rotation Act.  This is often how environmental regulations go from being on the books to actually being enforced, the Federation acts as the messenger rather than a government bureaucrat. 

All of this is happening as Horace Carver considers changes to the Lands Protection Act (who can own how much land), and the Land Use Policy committee continues its deliberations. Both have "three year rotations" in their sights for different reasons (Could it make an increase in land holdings more palatable if it was properly enforced? The Land Use Policy group would lose credibility if it doesn't call for strong enforcement of the regulation, given the ongoing issues of nitrates and soil erosion.)

So is the Crop Rotation Act harder to enforce than counting to 3?  Yes and no.  The traditional rotation has been potatoes, then grain under-seeded with hay.  Both the grain and hay grow during the second year, but the grain is tall enough to out compete the hay and be combined, then the hay is allowed to continue growing for the third year. Then some potato growers use rye and other cover crops planted in the Fall to keep organic levels stable or growing, soil from eroding, but do it within two year rotations rather than three. Others have three year rotations growing potatoes but with soybean then grain or corn, nothing that puts organic matter back, so is this better? Then there are the corn/soybean rotations, nothing of the demon spuds, but still a "short" rotation that again doesn't put much organic matter back (unless just the corn cob is harvested with the rest of the corn stock plowed under).   There have been recommendations going back as far as  Elmer Macdonald's Round Table in the mid "90's and as recently as the "fishkill committee" from last winter  to use soil organic levels as the benchmark for whether farmers are properly managing their land. Some have even recommended basing crop insurance premiums on organic matter levels (the higher they are the more a crop can withstand poor growing conditions, so the less a farmer should pay).  Let's get some sensible agreement on what a proper rotation is that will limit soil erosion, and start to stabilize and then lower nitrate levels.  It should include, in my opinion,  sod or hay, but the collapse of the cattle industry has led to less demand, so that's an issue.

The  "without management plan or permit" part does offer wiggle room to farmers and enforcers, and needs to be clarified or discarded. 

And of course some group of people (government no doubt) would have to go around with a GPS unit and make note of what crops are growing where in thousands of fields (could satellite pictures do this??), but virtually everything and anyone can take pictures now so this shouldn't be too hard.

As I've written many times before I think proper crop rotations are the most constructive way to tackle the environmental impact of commercial farming, and while many farmers would do it with or without regulations on the books, there are the stubborn few who will fight anyone telling them what they can and can't do on their farms. And very often on leased or rented land means no one pays much attention to how the land is used.   If we're to believe that farmers complaints led to the recent West Prince charges, then maybe there's a growing sense that it's only fair if everyone plays by the same rules. 

If these charges are an indication that the government is getting serious about crop rotation enforcement, then hats off. If the government won't act unless there are complaints from neighbours, then let's tell people that. Let's just do something.  

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