By Gordon Leathers
Farmers play a key role in managing the landscape.
Farming is about managing a complex ecology and growers simply cannot do that without causing some kind of environmental impact. Ian Wishart of the Keystone Agricultural Producers says a comprehensive Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) helps to manage the impact but drawing one up is a daunting process that must make sense to the farmer.
“If it doesn’t make sense to the individual producer when he does an environmental management plan, he’s only going to do it once.” Wishart says, “It must make sense and if it’s properly done, then it can help you manage your crops in a much better way.” Wishart outlined what he meant in a presentation on environmental farm plans and how to put together the pieces of the puzzle at the annual manure management conference held in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Farming is not a simple trade as any producer knows. All businesses are subject to the whims of the market but very few are as immediately influenced by other factors such as this year’s weather and last year’s rotation. In addition, how a farmer manages his crop and his property profoundly influences the social, environmental and economic health of the rural community.
These three pillars, social, environmental and economic, are the foundation upon which farming rests both as a business and a lifestyle. All three of these things are complex in and of themselves. Connect them together and it becomes even more complicated. However, as the soil nourishes the plant, the plant nourishes the animal and the animal then nourishes the soil, these things are intimately entwined and equally important, says Wishart.
“When I was first asked to talk about this, I thought this should be relatively straight forward,” he says. “I’ll talk about what we do on our farm every year. But then I got thinking about this and nutrient management is only really a very small piece of the puzzle.”
Since there are many other pieces to the puzzle, a well considered environmental management plan must take several different factors into consideration. Managing nutrients is the starting point and leads to better management of water, greenhouse gases and carbon sequestration at the regional level. And there is more. “We also get a considerable amount of pressure in the farm community on issues like fish and wildlife habitat, which is a public benefit that everybody’s wanting to see more of,” he says.
These things do not stand alone and their impact on farm income and quality of life as well as sustainability of rural communities must also be considered. “If we try to separate them, which we have been doing, the environmental issues will result in something that won’t work from the farmer’s perspective.” Wishart says, “We’re increasingly aware of the public benefits we produce as landscape managers, which is what farmers are, and the things that we provide for society.”
So where to start? One of the more contentious issues in 2007 is nutrient management, particularly with phosphorus. No matter what kind of fertilizer is being used, a farmer should know how much is going in as well as how much is coming out as crop, and how much is left as residue. The cornerstone of both a comprehensive nutrient management and EFP is a good program of soil analysis. “On our own farm I’m kind of fanatical about our cation exchange capacity because it really tells me how healthy my soil is, how well it’s working for me,” he says. “But you also need to include a simple little mathematical calculation so that you can balance the nutrient requirements.” The calculation is the amount of fertilizer applied subtracting the amount of crop removed. What is left after that is the amount of residual nutrients left in the soil for the next crop. The next major consideration is the long-term plans for crop rotation, which helps determine the nutrients required over time.
“We have other things too,” he says. “Things like water management, which is certainly a big issue in Manitoba, and of course there are direct linkages to things like water quality, nutrient losses and greenhouse gases.
“Greenhouse gases are something we really haven’t completely understood, but we’re beginning to understand,”
he says, adding, “There are things like nitrous oxides and methane from both manures and chemical sources. We need to figure out how to manage these things together and not be a major contributor.”
Farm fields are large stands of genetically similar plants, a situation that simply does not occur in nature. The only way a farmer can raise a crop of grains, oilseeds or legumes and raise it profitably is through intensive inputs such as tillage or the application of fertilizers and pesticides. As a consequence, native ecosystems such as wetlands or natural prairie tend to disappear. With them go the animals that depend on them such as deer, ground birds and waterfowl. This loss of natural variety, or biodiversity, can have serious long-term effects on the land.
“So far we have completely ignored biodiversity, even in soil organisms, and maybe it’s something that we should worry about. These days, we’re finding increasing demands from society not only for preservation of habitat but for expansion,” he says. All of these things must be taken together and they are important to farmers and to the societies they feed. It makes planning all the more complicated and requires a greater understanding of how all these things interconnect.
“This is the decision-making cycle from a producer’s perspective.” Wishart concludes, “This is just the environment side. In the end we need to put these all together, that’s the big planning process.”