“Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago when (the shelterbelt program at) Indian Head came into being,” Ritz said in an interview in response to changes being made in the wake of the recent federal budget.
“We’re wanting to make sure that government is focused on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.”
Current agricultural practices such as continuous cropping means some shelterbelts are today being pulled out, the minister said.
Ritz said the decision to wind down the federal role in growing and providing tree seedlings to farmers — a practice that began in the early 1900s — also means there is an opportunity for interested third parties to acquire ownership of the shelterbelt distribution program and carry it forward. But the government will continue with the research work that also takes place at the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, he said.
Bruce Neill, who retired about a year ago from his role as manager at the agroforestry centre after a 33-year career, said hundreds of millions of seedlings have been grown and distributed to farmers across Western Canada since the shelterbelt program began 111 years ago.
While provided to farmers for free, farmers had to invest money to make sure the seedlings would grow, said Neill, who felt the program remained valuable through the years.
“You don’t carry something on because of its history, its legacy. You’ve got to continue to evolve and I believe the centre has been doing that and trying to do that all along,” said Neill.
The trees served many purposes from preventing soil erosion and protecting yards to sequestering carbon. The program also went hand in hand with research in areas such as using trees for bioenergy generation, he said.
“You’re going to have to find other ways to incent or to convince, besides information or philosophy, to get (trees) on the landscape,” said Neill.
Norm Hall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said farmers trying to get established see a “real benefit” in being able to access the free seedlings. Even though shelterbelts in fields don’t play the same role due they once did, trees are still needed in some areas — including to protect farmyards from the elements, he said.
“I can see any young farmer that gets involved now would want trees around their yard,” said Hall, who hopes the program will continue in some capacity under a private partner.
The federal agriculture department also plans to stop operating community pastures in the coming few years. Ritz suggested they could be better managed by entities such as local rural municipalities or the farmers who use the pastures to graze cattle.
“Certainly when you look at the value of farmland across Saskatchewan, the growing interest in expanding our beef herd, we think it’s an ideal time for the government to pull back and, again, private sector farmers and producers (could) move into that job description,” said Ritz.
“Of course, the vast majority of those pastures are already owned by the province. We at the federal level have simply been managing them.”
There are 60 federal community pastures in Saskatchewan, and most of that land would revert to the province. A spokesman for the provincial government said no decisions have been made yet about what would happen to those pasture acres.
It’s not clear how many agriculture jobs in Saskatchewan will be eliminated as a result of the budget decisions. But the Public Service Alliance of Canada has said 385 of its members working for the Department of Agriculture across the prairies received notices their jobs could be lost, including 30 with the shelterbelt program by the end of 2013.
Regina Liberal MP Ralph Goodale accused the Conservative government Thursday of failing to provide a clear outline of exactly what programs, services and employees are affected because of budget cuts.
“I think they’re simply trying to obscure the overall picture,” Goodale said.
The pending loss of the shelterbelt program at Indian Head is a blow for agriculture, he said.
“It took an incredible amount of vision for farmers and the Laurier government at the turn of the last century, around 1900, to come up with the concept of what we now call an agroforestry centre but was then a tree farm in the middle of the bald prairies in the Palliser triangle
“Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago when (the shelterbelt program
at) Indian Head came into being,” Ritz said in an interview in response to
changes being made in the wake of the recent federal budget.