Farmers’ paths to a healthier, liveable ecosystem ought to have more potholes along the way.
That’s the latest assessment from a public policy conference held Tuesday about water sustainability on the prairies.
Hosted online by the Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy, the conference covered potholes, more commonly known as wetlands, in farmers’ fields and their larger place in Saskatchewan’s ecosystem.
Among the presenters were agriculture producers, a topography researcher, a concerned citizens group and a vice-chief from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), Heather Bear.
Humboldt-area agronomist Larry Durand presented his analyses of how leaving non-productive wetlands as they are, instead of draining and farming over them, can be less costly to a producer.
He referred to them as marginal lands. “They may be wetlands, they may be something else."
“Sometimes doing what’s best economically for a farm is also what’s really good environmentally … it kind of checks a lot of boxes,” Durand said.
He compared a wheat field where 50 acres of non-productive land went untouched with the same field where those 50 acres were farmed over (577 acres vs. 627 acres).
Durand showed a producer will lose money on input costs when they drain and farm over a wetland area instead of leaving it as is. The loss is a little more than $6,500 per acre.
But he underscored producers usually defer to an economic advantage of a practice; hence the need, he said, to show farmers sometimes it’s less costly to leave things as they are.
Ranging in size from a small ditch to a larger coulee and sometimes supporting the full growth of trees, wetlands are beneficial in a few ways: They offer flood control for farmers at high and low elevations, they stop downstream runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen by keeping them in the soil, they improve water quality in lakes and rivers by retaining those chemicals and they create biodiversity among plants, animals and insects.
Alice Davis, manager of the concerned citizens group Lower Qu’Appelle Watershed Stewards, began the panel discussion underscoring water connects all communities.
The Qu'Appelle watershed’s rivers and lakes “flow through 16 towns, 29 villages and 16 First Nations,” she said, emphasizing those waters are already “stressed” because of algae blooms caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorous.
Fixing that, she said, means keeping wetlands or restoring them, which can be done by plugging a ditch, which will restore the area “within a few years.”
She commended Durand and Bladworth-area livestock producer Ian McCreary for participating, saying their input should help other producers see economic benefits of being good environmental stewards of their fields' wetlands.
Davis’ group wants to see farmers succeed while ensuring their practices maintain high-quality downstream drinking water and healthy water ecosystems.
She believes “inheritance farmers” who’ve taken over their families’ land are doing that.
Long-term, she’s worried about “big-box farmers (corporations)” that she says don’t have those same considerations.
“That’s not their business,” Davis said. “Their business is hire people to operate the combines and farm corner to corner, get rid of the trees and get rid of the wetlands.”