Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts from the (first?) Community Pastures Forum

Well, we are all feeling exhausted and exhilarated from the experience of holding our first Community Pastures Forum. Of all the things we learned on Friday, perhaps the most important was that there are so many ways to value these 62 pieces of prairie that serve cattle producers and our threatened prairie ecosystems so effectively. The 75 people who attended on such a snowy day reflected a range of interests and backgrounds worthy of the prairie's own diversity. We had several pasture patrons, including two who sit on the patron committees for their local PFRA pasture. We had some anonymous government staff, federal and provincial. There were of course many people rural and urban--naturalists, hunters, photographers and others--who look to the pastures for the solace, adventure, and inspiration wilder lands can offer.

So much happened, so many encouraging ideas and messages from people with broad experience with the grazing and conservation side of things. We now have some specific tasks to undertake, which I will not detail in this space, but here are some of my favourite moments from the day, in no particular order:

  • Listening to Maureen Clay, recently retired supervisor of 13 PFRA pastures and their staff, explain the value of the pasture managers and their intimate knowledge of the land.
  • When I realized that, while current staff were forbidden from participating, there were at least five retired PFRA employees with us--some of them people who once held senior positions in management working for decades in Engineering or in the pastures side of things. They all stayed for the whole day, and when we discussed ideas and strategies at the end, a key bit of advice from their quarter made all the difference.
  • The noon hour panelists were all eloquent and passionate in their assessment of what must be done to protect the pastures in the interests of livestock producers, pasture employees, the local communities they live in, the public at large, and the biodiversity and ecological wellbeing of the prairie regions of the province.
  • It is always a treat to hear former Chief Roland Crowe speak and he was in good form but it was gratifying also to see him standing with the men in cowboy hats and talking to them about the issues.
  • The young people--there were a few people thirty and younger, including one young livestock producer who made a couple of cogent points on how the PFRA pastures system could be adapted to encourage or support cattlemen of his generation.
  • When at the beginning of the day Jack Boan, professor emiritus (econ.) of the University of Regina, walked in and sat down in the front row. Later Jack took the mic and told us that he worked for the PFRA as a young man, but then went on to say that his good friend, George Ledingham, former U of R Biology professor "would have been with us today, but he has gone on to his reward." George was the gentle but persistent force that over thirty years managed to talk the powers that be into finally recognizing the value of grasslands in a national park. Jack finished with his assessment of the "austerity disease" that has come across the border from the United States to infect Canadian governments.
  • The many new points and perspectives people brought to the event--for example, ideas on how to communicate to the wider public the story of why native grasslands matter.

And finally, here is a note I received from a person who like quite a few others who have spoken to me in recent weeks, wants to remain nameless for fear of repercussions from the provincial or federal government:
"Thanks for arranging the forum today; it was excellent.  My only wish was that there had been those elusive representatives from MOA and AESB (and not retirees either).  . . . .There was one point I'd like to contribute, is that there is a true disconnect from the pastures and the general public.  For those of us who make a living, or a concerted effort to access the "back forty", we have a deep connection to the land.  But for the general public who have no rural connection, rallying the public (especially those in other provinces) is a formidable task.  The message can't only tug at heartstrings, but has to have some real tangible implications to the public. That's my two cents worth anyway."

Yes, there is a lot of work ahead, but now there are many of us to do it and for that I am very grateful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An example of one community pasture up for sale

the hidden understorey of native grassland, with lichens and club mosses
A cattleman I know recently told me a story that made me realize that there could well be some powerful players in the beef industry who are hoping to get some of the PFRA pastures if they are put up for sale.

"We were at the Calgary Stampede and didn't have a seat, but I ran into a friend there who was a bit of a bigwig with the Stampede and he said, 'no problem, I can get you a spot.' So he sat us down in the VIP seating at right next to a couple of women who work for one of the major banks in the farm sector. Somehow we got talking about Saskatchewan pasture land and they told me the big operators in the Alberta cattle industry see Saskatchewan as a source of cheap land for building feedlots and large backgrounding operations."

What's backgrounding? That's what I wondered too so I looked it up. Here is an explanation of how backgrounding works, from a Stats Canada publication available online:

"Cow-calf operations sell calves to backgrounding or feeding operations. Backgrounding operations, which include feeder and stocker/finishing operations, usually keep cattle throughout the winter to be fed a low energy ration like forage. Backgrounding operations sell cattle the year after as yearlings, to be finished on feeding operations, or as fed cattle ready to be slaughtered. Usually more than half the heifers for slaughter and steers inventories in Canada, at January 1 or July 1, are reported to be on feeding operations. Feeder steers and heifers on feeding operations are fed a high energy ration like grains to be finished to slaughter weight. The Western provinces have 30.6% of the total feeding operations and account for 75.4% of the Canadian cattle inventory on feeding operations." 
From what I gather, these are the intermediary places in the beef industry that can be quite profitable businesses once the operation gets big enough.

These kinds of businesses are not the PFRA patrons but they may be the people backing those who are trying to buy a pasture. If that happens, what is lost?

Consider one of the pastures up for sale right now--Wolverine near Lanigan. A lovely piece of grassland in a place where there are almost no other native prairie remnants, Wolverine is one of the few Aspen Parkland pastures that still has some Sprague's Pipits in residence and other grassland birds--last time I checked anyway.

Right now around 45 producers have 1,300 cattle that graze the 17,000 acres at Wolverine every summer. If a feedlot or backgrounding operation gets hold of it, instead of 45 producers and their families benefiting from the grazing opportunity and bringing spinoff economic activity to the local community, there could be one or two owners of a large company that controls the access to all 17,000 acres and makes all of the management decisions without the kind of grass and ecosystem management the PFRA system always provided to look after the land.

That transfer of this piece of our commonwealth into the hands of the a couple of favoured operators will also lead to the local community and economy losing the pasture management staff and their families. And, as well, if the pasture is degraded from overstocking and no control of invasive species and shrubs, the biodiversity and species at risk will suffer, riparian areas could be damaged, and the land would lose much of its capacity to store carbon.

from Western Producer
Recently the pasture staff at Wolverine conducted a trial using goats to knock back shrubby growth on the pasture, which is a serious problem in certain parts of the prairie. Here is a story about it from the September issue of Western Producer, an example of the kind of enlightened work done under the PFRA system using new approaches to handle invasive species and brush, which not only reduce the amount of good grazing for cattle but also ruin habitat for endangered grassland birds and other species at risk. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

An anonymous tip--patrons are being tempted by offers from big investors

I received a disturbing message today from someone in the ag sector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Here it is, with identifying bits cropped out:

It has come to my attention that investment corporations outside of Saskatchewan have approached the patrons to purchase the land immediately after sale for approx. 2x the province's sale price, per quarter. So to summarize,, investment conglomerates have asked the patrons to make the purchase, even if they don't want to, as they will buy it directly after from the patrons at approx. 2x the purchase price, ~$80,000 per 160 acres. Real estate agents have been approaching the patrons as so the investment groups can keep some distance until after the sales.

In addition, I have also been advised that upon the sale the patrons make, they can request to have the conservation easements lifted if it is hindering a sale (to any investors as noted above). Which is totally legal, and the patrons are aware of this loophole as are the investment groups.

Lastly, patrons have indicated that some of the land will be tilled upon sale, as the cost of any law suit related to the no-till conservation easement will not compare to the potential profitability from breaking the land. In addition the SARA loses teeth on private land, and is rarely enforced in Saskatchewan in this regard.

It is also my opinion the province will not enforce the easements, as is evident throughout Saskatchewan now.

This information is from patrons, I would expect it to be accurate. You may have heard this already.

Please do not pass my name along.

If this is legit, and I think it is, our fears of outside interests buying up the pastures and ploughing them to grow crops are justified. If patron groups flip the pastures to make a quick buck and then the new owners one way or another blow off the no-plough conservation easement, the pastures will be destroyed. Who would these out of province investors be? Well, the Nillson Bros. in Alberta (of XL Foods' e.coli fame) are in the market for a lot of land. They might like having giant pastures in Saskatchewan they can use any way they want to strengthen their position in the beef industry. Even worse,  CNOOC of China, the same corporation that wants to control Canada's oil industry and buy Nexen, is said to be interested in the pastures now. Rumours? Who knows, but if these nightmares come to pass, every cattleman and anyone who cares about prairie landscapes and ecology will be sorry we did not speak out against it soon enough.

No matter who ends up owning the pastures, the conservation easements will do nothing to protect them. I talked last night with a retired pasture supervisor who managed 13 pastures under the PFRA system. This person told me that the conservation easements are worthless. "If the land is sold much of it will be ploughed. No one will monitor to see that it isn't. And once it is broken, there is nothing you can do to bring it back."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

An invitation to pasture patrons: come speak at a Public Forum on the Pastures

Tree Swallow perched on our Prairie Stewardship sign
In Regina on Friday, November 23rd, there will be a facilitated open forum on the disposal of the PFRA pasture lands in Saskatchewan. The night before, Nov. 22nd, author Candace Savage (freshly returned from her well-deserved award of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust prize for non-fiction) will present her thoughts on the legacy of the PFRA pastures at a public slide-talk at the Education Auditorium, beginning at 7pm. The evening is free. Copies of Candace's brilliant and powerful new book, A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape will be on sale.

We are holding the public forum on the 23rd at the Orr Centre which is a short drive north of the Exhibition Grounds in Regina (see map here). We especially would like to hear from PFRA pasture patrons and other livestock people who will voice their opinions on the pastures issue, as well as people from the conservation community, rural municipalities and farm organizations. Any interested government staff from the Provincial and Federal levels are also very welcome to join us for the day if they can come. Our hope is that by bringing together the various interest groups and stakeholders--especially pasture patrons--we will find some common ground on the matter of how these critically important landscapes should be managed in the years to come.

For now, the Province of Saskatchewan says that they plan to sell or lease all 61 of the pastures in stages, and they have announced the first ten to be disposed of. Yesterday, with the Federal Government they released some information on how they will give money to any pasture patron groups who want to buy a pasture. There was an article in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix covering the story and they interviewed the Provincial Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Lyle Stewart, as well as a cattleman from Dundurn area who has used the local community pasture. The cattleman, Verner Falk, says in the article that ranchers will not be able to afford to buy the pastures and that the new funding promises won't make a difference.
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:

That is what it is; however, at the same time this was happening, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities--which was officially on record as supporting the Province's plan--entertained a resolution that insisted that the Province "retain ownership of the federally transitioned pastures and assist with the development of a pasture lands management structure to ensure the pastures continue to serve local producers and communities."

I came home to find a voice-mail from a friend who was on the floor at the convention, telling me that the resolution, sponsored by a group of four rural municipalities, was passed by more than two-thirds majority! An email from Joanne Brochu (who drafted the resolution and who I wrote about in this space a couple weeks ago) confirmed it. That was such exciting news. SARM is a key stakeholder in this matter and the voice of its membership from rural areas around this province simply cannot be ignored.

Again, pasture patrons--if you are out there, please please come to Regina and take part in the forum next Friday. If you want to talk about it or are nervous and need to be convinced please email me at or phone me at 306-585-1674. I would love to talk to you.

Meanwhile, here are some more details on the forum:

a Peregrine Falcon I found this spring migrating through pasture land
The morning information session topics include the history and context of the pastures, ecological values and species at risk in the pastures, and First Nations interests in the land. There will be two open mic sessions, time to say your peace or ask questions.

The noon panel discussion features key stakeholders - pasture employees and patrons, First Nations, and conservation and recreational interests.

The afternoon session will be a facilitated discussion on the role of the pastures within public policy, working towards resolutions.

The day's proceedings are open to all! And free of charge. A catered lunch will be available for $10.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Will the real pasture patrons please come forward?

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
The provincial government has said that they have consulted with the PFRA grazing patrons and with the livestock industry. They say they will only sell or lease the 62 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan to “patron groups.” I want to trust our elected representatives and they no doubt feel they are doing the right thing with the pastures, but I am having trouble figuring out what they mean when they talk about pasture patrons.

I have spoken to people who have had cattle recently on a PFRA pasture and they say they were not contacted by the provincial government to get their thoughts on how the pastures should be handled once they are transferred to the province. My last post was based on a conversation I had with a patron from Colonsay, Joanne Brochu.

One estimate I heard says that there were 2800 PFRA pasture patrons in the system. Most of those would be in Saskatchewan. Has anyone polled them to see what they would like to see happen with this land?

Now, I am not a livestock producer and my experience with cattle is limited to watching the neighbour’s steers and heifers graze our little bit of native prairie, but as anyone who reads this space will know, that shortcoming has never stopped me from trying to figure out what is going on in the beef production world.

So, with that half-assed disclaimer tucked into my boots, I will wade in. And as usual, I hope to hear from people who can correct me if any of what I am about to say is way out of line.

From what I am given to understand, the average PFRA pasture patron has in the past usually been a small to medium-sized livestock producer. Many of them mixed farmers who have fewer than 300 head of cattle. Although the system may have recently gotten away from its original commitment to also help out younger producers--these days young cattlemen are rare as hens’ teeth--there has always been a sense that these publicly owned grasslands had a mandate to provide access to affordable grazing for those who need it most: smaller producers and those who are just getting started.

If the PFRA pastures, some of the best maintained grasslands anywhere in North America, are sold or leased out to private interests, that mandate will be gone. Instead of helping smaller producers who need it most, the pastures will be controlled by those who are already doing quite well. In effect, the transfer of the 62 PFRA pastures from the Federal government to Saskatchewan will greatly accelerate an industry rationalization process that has been underway for quite a while.

badly managed private pasture

Regardless of what party is in power, agriculture policy at every government level, whether it is about grain production or meat production, has strongly shifted away from any pretense that the little guy matters and toward the “go big or go home” mentality that now dominates the landscape. Take a look at recent Stats Canada figures showing that 2.6% of Canada’s farms bring in $1 million or more in revenue and produce 40% of total receipts for the nation’s agriculture. But while the number of million dollar farms rises, we are losing farms at a ferocious rate. From 2001 to 2006, the number of farms in Canada dropped by 7.1%. We lost 17,000 in that five year period! We need more farms, not less if we want to raise food in healthy sustainable ways that serve our communities and landscapes.

How does this relate to the pastures being sold or leased to private groups? Well, no one will be surprised if we find out that the “patron groups” who manage to put together the funds to purchase or lease the PFRA pastures are well financed and large operators. Some of the buyers will undoubtedly have strong positions within the supply chain that runs between the pasture and the export market or your dinner plate. By that, I mean the feedlots that “finish” the cattle before they are shipped either to foreign slaughterhouses or to the two meat packers that provide virtually all of Canada’s beef. Those two corporations, however, are foreign entities too. Cargill, one of the planet’s biggest agricultural multi-nationals, runs one, and the other, XL foods of recent e. coli infamy, is being taken over by the world’s largest beef processor, JBS, which subsumed the American company Swift Meats in 2007 and kept on going without a pause.

The only people earning big money in the beef market these days have found ways to get large enough to take advantage of a system that is designed to make JBS and Cargill very wealthy while providing our trading partners and Canada with relatively cheap meat. (I.e. cheap relative to disposable income.) Some are feedlot owners, some are investors and land-owners who finance large feeder-cattle grazing operations, and some are simply cattlemen who have a lot of land and cattle. Many of these folks are doing well, in part because they have followed the cues and incentives that ag policy has provided, and in part because they have found a niche in the system that works for them. One might congratulate them for their success, but that would be superfluous because the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame has already done that. They are often the ones who get appointed to boards and committees established by government or industry. They become the presidents and chairs of organizations that end up speaking for all cattlemen, including the silent majority who don’t have time or inclination to get involved in politics and industry-level lobbying.

These are the men--and yes, almost all of them are men--who get called in to speak for the cattle industry at times like this. They may know a lot more about managing a feedlot, running spread sheets, or lobbying for trade deals with China than they do about delivering a breach calf or identifying invasive plants, but they somehow are the ones who end up calling the shots on how Canada’s grasslands are used by and allocated to cattle producers.

In the end it comes down to this: the private sale or lease opportunity on offer by the Provincial Government may appeal to well-financed and well-connected larger players in the cattle industry's supply chain, but it will do nothing but further marginalize the average patron of these pastures, the independant cow-calf operators who may need some extra grass now and then and the small to medium-sized cattle operations depend on the pastures every year.

And that means your uncle and aunt who have been using the local PFRA pasture will find it that much harder to keep going in a business that is being tilted in favour of the industry’s big players and the foreign interests who end up delivering the cheapest hamburger and steak possible to a store near you. Which brings up another story we are not hearing about--it is easy to point to the industry, but its big winners are only giving us what we want: cheap, tasty meat. The buck ultimately stops with the consumer. If we want to take better care of our grasslands, and sustain the PFRA and other ecologically sound grassland use, we have to begin paying for the full ecological costs of eating high on the food chain.

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Do all patrons and livestock producers approve?

these pasture signs will be coming down year by year as the pastures are transferred to the province

Given the way the media has covered but mostly ignored the PFRA community pastures debate in this province, it is easy to assume that rural people, the current PFRA patrons, and livestock producers are all happy as clams with the plan that the Department of Agriculture has announced. That plan, of course, is to either sell or lease, to private individuals and consortiums, all 62 pastures, totalling more than 1.6 million acres of some of the most ecologically important grasslands on the northern Great Plains.

The minister of Agriculture, Lyle Stewart, says he has consulted with the cattle industry and the former PFRA grazing patrons, and the plan was devised by an advisory committee made up of such people. All is well, we are assured.

Today I spoke on the phone with a PFRA pasture patron who says that many people who raise livestock in Saskatchewan are not happy with the plan to sell or lease. Her name is Joanne Brochu and she and her husband are mixed farmers near the town of Colonsay.

“We have 146 head, a cow-calf operation," Joanne said, "but we only have five of our own grazing quarters so we need access to the community pasture.” For the last five years, the Brochus have been sending eighty to ninety head to the Hazel Dell PFRA pasture for much of the grazing season.

western kingbird
“If we lose access to that pasture, we will have no choice but to reduce our herd, and if that happens we will have to figure out if it's worth staying in cattle at all. I suspect when we do the math, it won’t be.”

When she heard that the federal pasture system was being dismantled, Joanne started doing some research into its history. “I don’t think I really appreciated the pastures and their role, what they have accomplished over the years.”

As an active member of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association (SCA), Joanne speaks to other producers and she knows she is not the only one who likes the PFRA model, with well-managed pastures that remain in government hands to ensure fair allotment.

She told me that most of the ranchers and mixed farmers she speaks to would prefer the province retained ownership of the pastures as they are transferred from federal control. And they would like them to be managed under some kind of structure that suits the needs of the whole grazing community and not merely a few privileged owners and lessees. After doing some talking and research, Joanne drafted up a resolution for the Sask. Cattlemen's Association (SCA) that calls for just such a plan.

“It's been busy so I’ve only had time to have it presented at meetings for three of the nine SCA districts,” Joanne said, “but it passed at all three and in my district where I was able to be there to count the votes, it passed by a vote of eighteen to five. That's a pretty strong majority in my books.”

[Note: Please have a look at Joanne's comment below which she sent in after I posted this story--some very cogent remarks about the larger cultural and community effects of selling the pastures.]

Here is the actual wording from Joanne’s resolution: “BE IT RESOLVED that Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association lobby the Province of Saskatchewan to retain ownership of the federally transitioned pastures and assist with the development of a pasture lands management structure to ensure the pastures continue to serve local producers and communities, and operate on a cost recovery basis.”

Ok, so thirty per cent of the districts of the SCA pass a strong resolution that calls on the SCA to lobby the government to retain ownership of the pastures, and one hundred per cent of those who considered Joanne’s resolution passed it. And yet, we hear that the livestock industry supports the existing plan. In fact, the SCA executive put out a press release endorsing the planned sale or lease of the first ten pastures on October 19, the same day the government made its announcement.

What is going on here? Just what do we mean when we say "livestock industry" anyway, and does it really speak with one voice? If there is a disconnect between what the "industry leaders" are saying and what the guys who get up in the middle of the night at calving time are saying, then what is causing it?

And why do we only hear from those who approve the province's plan? Why are we not hearing from the cattle producers and other rural folks who want the pastures retained and well-managed under the public trust? I will try to answer some of those questions in my next post.

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