Friday, May 18, 2012

"This Land is Your Land" by Candace Savage

Lark Bunting--one of many species of birds that rely on the native grasses of Canada's federal Community Pastures

The thought of losing the last great publicly protected grasslands in Canada (see previous posts on the Federal divestiture of community pastures) has stimulated one the prairie's greatest and most eloquent defenders to speak out.

In yesterday's Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Candace Savage (author of many impressive books of natural history, including the unequalled Prairie: a Natural History) published a stirring and passionate appeal for readers to let the provincial government know that we want to continue protecting these few remaining large remnants of mixed-grass prairie.

Candace sent me a copy and is graciously allowing me to reproduce her words here unexpurgated. Her plea, titled "This Land is Your Land," follows:

If you care about the special beauty of the prairie—if you want know that there will be wild, wide open spaces of natural grassland for your children’s children to enjoy—there is something you can do. It will only take a few minutes, but it could affect the health of the prairie ecosystem for generations.

What’s at stake are some of the largest unfragmented expanses of grasslands anywhere in the world. For the last seventy years, these lands, which comprise an astonishing 929,000 ha, or 2.3 million acres, across the Canadian prairies, have been managed by the federal government as PFRA (now AESB) Community Pastures. Of the eighty‐five pastures in the system, sixty are located in Saskatchewan, with a total expanse of 729,000 ha, or 1.8 million acres. Together, they constitute almost 16% of the natural prairie that survives in this province.

Initially instituted to protect fragile, erosion‐prone soils during the Thirties’ drought, the federal Community Pasture program has ending up delivering a bonanza of economic and environmental benefits. Thanks to decades of conscientious management, the pastures currently provide both quality grazing to livestock producers (on a fee‐for‐service basis) and quality habitat for the prairie’s unique‐‐and uniquely imperilled—plants and animals.

Did you know that, in recent decades, prairie birds have suffered the most severe and widespread declines of any habitat group on the continent? In the face of these kinds of losses, the Community Pastures have become a landscape of hope for many of the grassland’s beleaguered species.

The buffalo ecosystem was shaped by grazing, and on the Community Pastures, grazing by cattle is managed to meet the needs of a diverse array of living things, from burrowing owls to yellow‐bellied racers and from swift foxes to ferruginous hawks. In Saskatchewan alone, thirty‐one endangered and threatened species are known to occur on the grasslands of the federal Community Pastures. In addition, several pastures are included in the Important Bird Areas network, a status that highlights their importance as critical habitat for the conservation of prairie species.
Ferruginous Hawk, photo courtesy of Allan MacKeigan

But the Government of Canada giveth and the Government taketh away, and these days, the Community Pastures are themselves in serious jeopardy. According to a press release issued last month by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the entire Community Pasture program is on a fast track to extinction. Apparently oblivious to the wisdom of a previous generation, who saw with their own eyes the toll a severe drought could take on these sensitive lands, Mr. Ritz has decided that the pastures no longer require coordinated oversight or long‐term protection. Instead, the land is to be off‐loaded piecemeal onto the provinces (since it is mostly provincial Crown Land), with the first ten properties to be transferred by the 2013‐14 grazing season.

Five of the first orphaned pastures will be in Saskatchewan. The Community Pastures are public land, and their resources of life and beauty are part of our heritage. The hard‐won knowledge gained over decades by Community Pasture staff, as they have grappled with the successive challenges of grazing management, endangered‐species conservation, and oil‐and‐gas development, is a collective accomplishment. Yet to Mr. Ritz, poof, it is just so much dust in the wind. Assets that took decades to acquire could be gone in an instant.

And this is where you and I come into the picture. The land and its creatures can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them. Sadly, I don’t have much faith in our ability to communicate with Mr. Ritz or his colleagues in the House of Commons. (If the courts couldn’t stop them from dismantling the Wheat Board, what chance do mere citizens have?) But I am guardedly hopeful that our provincial representatives will listen to our concerns about how these important lands should be managed in the future.

The big, bold prairie landscapes of the Community Pastures are perfectly adapted for use as grazing lands. Whatever else happens, they must be protected from cultivation and carefully managed for livestock production.

So please take a few minutes to write to your MLA (you’ll find contact information at and tell him or her that you care about the livestock producers and Community Pasture staff who rely on these lands for their livelihood. More than that, tell him or her that you care about the prairie’s wild inhabitants, which rely on the wide open spaces of cattle country for their very existence.

A prudent rancher always reserves grass as “carryover” for the following year. The Community Pastures are our carryover for the future.

Candace Savage is the author of Prairie: a Natural History. She lives in Saskatoon and Eastend.
without the hundreds of thousands of acres protected in Community Pastures, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, already on the threatened list, will slide further toward oblivion (image courtesy of Allan MacKeigan)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Stats Canada shows we are heading the wrong direction with Agriculture

This small farm no longer exists but Stats Canada figures won't tell you why.

Every newspaper in Canada today includes a small and unremarkable article tucked away in the national news section, announcing new figures on the nation's farms and farmers. The data comes from the latest Stats Canada figures, which were released yesterday.

We yawn and turn the page, but, given that this is about the way we feed ourselves and treat our land base in the process, we should be choking on our corn flakes at some of the alarming numbers.

How's this one? Across Canada the number of farms dropped by 10.3% from 2006 to 2011. In the last five crop seasons, we lost 23,643 farms!! In Saskatchewan, where we like to lead the way in agricultural dysfunction, the figures are much worse. The total number of Sask. farms dropped by 16.6% during that five year period. We lost almost eight thousand farms by going from 44,329 farms down to 36,952.

Not to worry, though. That loss of farmers and farms was compensated for by big farmers getting even bigger. The average size of a Canadian farm increased 6.9% from 728 acres to 778 acres. In Saskatchewan, once again leading the nation in the move to big ag, the average farm size increased 15.1% to 1,668 acres, which represents the largest increase in the country.

Sifting through the data for a silver lining, I couldn't find much, other than a modest increase in the percentage of Canadian farms that are organic. That figure rose from 1.5% of all farms in 2006 to 1.8% in 2011.

Saskatchewan, however, did its best to knock that number down a notch by actually losing 14.6 per cent of its organic operations since 2006. In the last five years, we have lost more than 1,100 organic operations, because they shut down, left the province or turned back to conventional farming.

No surprise that the number of beef farms in Canada declined sharply while farms growing oilseed and grains increased.

That shift away from pasture agriculture to cropped agriculture is of course bad news for biodiversity, but what about the rest of land use on Canadian farms? How has that changed since 2006? Stats Canada breaks it down into cropland, pasture land, woodland and wetland, and other. "Pasture land" and "woodland and wetland", the categories that allow wildlife to co-exist, both declined. The amount of woodland and wetland on Canada's farms declined by 8.8% in the five year window.

Still on the subject of land use, no-till practices accounted for more than half of all area prepared for seeding across the country. This shift was the result of a 23.8% increase in the area of land seeded using no-till practices. Overall, 17.1% more farms reported using this practice than in 2006. No-till does conserve soil and soil moisture, but it requires a level of chemical use and a scale of equipment that expunges habitat on and around cropland, turning farms into industrial food factories.

This is the kind of rig that makes it uneconomical to leave sloughs, bush, or scraps of pasture on farmland

There are two sets of figures that are missing from the report, even though they represent two primary forces driving all of the other changes. One is the level of hydrocarbon input on the average Canadian farm and the other figure conspicuously absent is the per-unit price of produce when it leaves Canadian farms.

Since the late 1940's, these two trends--the first rising sharply and the other declining--have been driving farmers out of business, consolidating small family farms into massive agribusiness enterprises, and turning on-farm wildlife habitat into a liability.

Nonetheless, these figures released by Stats Canada should wake us up to what is really happening on the public trust of our nation's farms. If we look at these figures with hearts that care about what happens to farmers and to farm community, about the quality of our food and the wellbeing of the native plants and animals who try to survive on Canadian farmland, we will see that we must start heading the other direction.

We must start paying food growers prices per unit that reflect the costs of growing food in ways that are healthy for people and wildness, and we must help farmers to reduce their dependency on hydrocarbons, whether it is to cultivate the land, handle pests, or deliver the goods to market.

To help that happen, we not only have to start meeting the people who grow our food and doing our best to buy local and support more sustainable farm practices. We must at the same time become vocal activists in the political sphere--voting, running for office, protesting and exposing big ag wherever it damages ecology and human community, and talking to one another about the choices we make both in our families and in our corporations and governments.

Tomorrow is Saturday. If you have a chance, get out to your local farmer's market, and buy something healthy for your family, the farmer who harvested it, and the land that grew it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Offloading Federal Pastures: Part 2

Native Grassland in the Frenchman River Valley

Now that Stephen Harper has decided that the Federal grasslands (formerly PFRA or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration pastures) are no longer necessary, there is much speculation about what might happen to the land, which reverts back to the respective provincial governments.

Sask. Ag minister, Bob Bjornerud says in this recent article that Saskatchewan is not really interested in managing more provincial pastures, and he suggests that the best solution may be for cattle producers to band together to purchase the local pasture they depend on.

Here is a recent page from a chat group of people who have an interest in cattle and grazing land. Some of their comments are insightful. One person suggests that the federal pastures were getting too costly. Others express concern over the amount of regulation and red tape making it less attractive for livestock people to put their cattle on the PFRA pastures. Industry pressures driving out the small to medium- sized cow-calf operators is listed as another factor that has played a role in the way the federal pastures are used by local producers.

The conservation NGO community in Saskatchewan is hoping to work with livestock producer groups to develop a solution that could be put forward to the province, one that would serve the interests of grazers while conserving the ecological integrity of these critical pieces of grassland.

One possibility would be to make as many of the old PFRA pastures as possible into "Heritage Rangelands." This term comes from Alberta. Almost ten years ago now, the province of Alberta took steps to preserve "the legacy of both its ranching heritage and its prairie grassland" by establishing

This quote comes from a document released by the Alberta Wilderness Association describing the Heritage Rangelands program at its inception.

The idea would be to offer grazing for local livestock producers at fair rates, but manage the land primarily for ecological sustainability and biodiversity.

I am told there is no rush because it will take years to turn these lands over to the provinces. On the other hand, as we know from our experience with the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands in Saskatchewan, our government has a way of suddenly announcing decisions without consulting the conservation community.

Someone should remind the premier's office and the ministries of environment and agriculture that they do not want another situation where they are seen to be not consulting the public on an important conservation issue in Sask, and that the public and its conservation community must be consulted and included in the planning for what will be done with these pastures.

Sprague's pipit--one of the many endangered species for whom the PFRA pastures represent critical habitat.

Earlier this week I received an email from well-known (and now retired) native prairie seed-producer, Nora Stewart. She mentioned that in recent summers her daughter Laura has done field work (plant ID) in two Sask. PFRA pastures: Lomond (near Weyburn) and Tecumseh (north of Forget) pastures for the past two summers.

Nora says that long-term oil activity has badly degraded Lomond and will soon do the same to Tecumseh (a pasture I describe briefly in Grass, Sky, Song, pp. 118-119). All grasslands seem to be under assault from the gas and oil industry. Our declining native prairie ecosystems cannot afford to lose any more habitat--whether to resource development or to privatization or government neglect.

The old PFRA pastures represent a critical opportunity to do something lasting and visionary with some of the most ecologically rich grasslands remaining on the continent. We must not let this moment pass without making every effort to find the kind of common ground between cattle grazers and conservationists that will ensure the health of these important remnants of prairie wildness. To do any less will be to abandon some of Canada's most critical habitat for endangered species, in essence repeating Stephen Harper's own cynical gesture to wash his hands of these vital and historic landscapes.
yellow coneflower growing on native prairie

Share this post

Get widget