Thursday, 18 September 2014

Too Clever by Half

I was trying to make a point  about the importance of organic matter, and crop rotations, but had to backtrack on some of it.

Fighting Wireworm May Save the Potato Industry

Wireworms are nothing but trouble for farmers. Voracious worms that feast on grain , fruit,  grasses, root crops, and whatever else farmers have planted. The damage is usually enough to keep produce from being acceptable on blemish free supermarket shelves.  Wireworms have forced some families to quit farming, costing others thousands of dollars.  Depending on the species they emerge as click beetles every 2 to 5 years and can fly somewhere else to do extend their damage. So Petrie have you lost your mind??

It’s how farmers are being forced to fight wireworm that I find interesting, maybe hopeful.  In Canada Thimet is the only insecticide that works, but after several extensions it’s supposed to lose its registration in 2015, with nothing in the pipeline to replace it.  So farmers are being forced to look at crop rotations with brown mustard and buckwheat, which have proven to be quite an effective way to control wireworm numbers. The crops are cut and plowed under, not harvested, and release bio-toxins that kill and control wireworm populations.   Here’s the thing. Thinking about crop rotations as a way to improve the quality of the “money maker”  crop in the second, third or fourth year of  a rotation is a welcome return to how farmers used to  think about crop rotations.  More recently, because farmers have been paid so poorly for table and processing potatoes, the second and third years of a rotation have to be money makers too, so soybeans, and corn have become popular rotation crops. They are certainly more valuable than barley or hay, but they’re harvested late with little chance for fall cover crops, and do little to improve organic matter levels  in the soil. And I can’t think of anything that’s more important to reversing the negative cycle of nitrate and pesticide leaching, anoxic rivers,  sedimentation, and now the growing need for irrigation,  than improving soil quality. And that just won’t happen unless crop rotation is taken seriously, and rotation crops are viewed as ways of improving soil structure and health,  not of keeping farmers from going bankrupt.

I had the privilege  of interviewing many of the old hands in the potato industry, the movers and leaders through the 60’s, 70’s and 1980’s (the videos can be seen on the Youtube channel of the PEI Potato Board).  They all worry about the brutal economics in the potato industry, prices they’d seen in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s while the cost of production has skyrocketed. Many worry about the shortcuts farmers have been forced to take to survive, the growth in farm size as farmers chase economies of scale. All worry about the future of the industry.  Several spoke passionately about  the crop rotations that worked for them. Yes, they’d say,  there would be a lot of sod to wrestle with in the potatoes grown after a hay crop, but you had to do it to keep the soil healthy.  Some talked about the importance of keeping cattle to have the manure to put back on the land.  All accepted that if you could break even on a rotation crop, generate a little cash at the elevators delivering grain,  that was fine, because it was the potatoes that had to pay the bills,   and quality and yield came from good soils.  These guys know what they’re talking about.

I’m not saying this is an issue on every farm, and these concerns are hardly new. The latest came from the group looking at the series of fishkills in Barclay’s Brook in West Prince:
“The Action Committee found that soil in some land
backing onto the Barclay Brook has low
organic matter levels as a result of intensive farm
management practices leading to a greater
likelihood of soil erosion and increased surface
runoff. The Action Committee understands
similar circumstances probably occur at locations
throughout the province making watercourses more
vulnerable to contaminated surface runoff.”

I really wish wireworm wasn’t the reason for farmers to think again about the proper use of crop rotations. Unfortunately wireworm is particularly fond of grass which should be an important part of rebuilding soil organic levels,  but mustard and buckwheat are both good sources of organic matter too.  All of this requires more research, some regulatory backbone to enforce crop rotation rules (including common sense and flexibility, increasing organic matter should be the yardstick), and big buyers like Cavendish Farms not counting  on rotation crops to keep farmers solvent. They’re needed  to rebuild soil quality, not backstop cheap potatoes.

Fessing Up

I have to confess to having a bad attitude towards corn, not the sweet stuff we get to enjoy for a couple of monthes in the summer, but the grain corn grown for livestock feed and increasingly for dozens of industrial uses like ethanol. It started in the 1970’s when I’d done some reporting on atrazine, a herbicide widely used with corn at the time,  one of those endocrine disrupters that’s become the most persistent contaminant in rural well water in the United States.  Atrazine was banned in Europe a decade ago.  Corn is also linked to the huge change in U.S. farm policy in the 1970’s that shifted the government’s role of maintaining stable commodity prices by buying up surpluses, and releasing holdings during shortages, to subsidizing production of certain commodities like corn and soybeans, and Earl Butz’s famous order to U.S. farmers to “plant fence post to fence post.”  All of this had a huge impact on Maritime livestock producers who couldn’t produce feedgrains as cheaply as the U.S. mid-west, and Western Canada.  More recently my attitude towards corn got worse when it became the base commodity to produce ethanol.  Corn is a starch that has to be “cooked” first to produce the sugars that can be distilled into alcohol, so it’s greenhouse gas advantage is negligible. Sugar beets, sugar cane, etc are better candidates to do this.  I then let my corn bias show in the last column when I presented it as a poor rotation crop for farmers. I’m here to acknowledge it doesn’t have to be.

When I moved to PEI in the late 1970’s I was able to let corn go. There was very little grown here because the season and heat units needed to produce reliable harvests just weren’t available on the Island. The climate hasn’t changed much but there are now shorter season varieties giving PEI farmers a chance to produce grain corn, and a drive around the country is ample evidence that many farmers are doing just that. It’s still a little risky in the Fall, not so much that the corn won’t mature, but whether farmers can harvest at the right moisture level to allow it to store properly.  Drying costs are high, and soybeans often take priority for drying at the grain elevators. 

The corn or maise plant itself is interesting and unusual. Scientists call it a “C4”, a small group of plants that are more efficient at photosynthesis, grab more CO2 out of the air, can better withstand dry conditions and heat, and under normal conditions produce more plant material than grasses and other small grains.  And something else that’s worth noting, most of the corn grown now is GMO “round-up ready” which means glyphosphate  is used as a herbicide rather than the more potentially dangerous atrazine.

Most importantly (and what I failed to acknowledge) is that corn can add a lot of organic matter to the soil.  Many farmers harvest just the cob leaving the rest of the plant (what’s called the stover) available to be disked back in, or left as a cover through the winter. A local grain corn grower in eastern PEI where there are sandier soils has seen organic levels improved after years of growing potatoes.  Some farmers harvest the whole plant as silage, but they’re almost always livestock producers with manure to put back on the land.

And there’s one other important role that corn and soybeans are playing on PEI.  They’ve given farmers other cash crop choices than potatoes and that could be increasingly important in the future. The demand for potatoes, both in processing and table markets is falling and farmers need to make smart decisions. Ignoring market trends, planting the same as always and hoping a market will be found is not a proven path to financial success, quite the opposite in fact. An over supplied potato market is nothing but financial misery.  Of course corn and soybeans are commodities too, and PEI farmers remain price takers. The price outlook for corn is not good right now with bumper crops coming off U.S. farms. 

There’s one other wrinkle when it comes to corn here. There was a PEI court case that had to decide whether corn is a row crop as defined under the Crop Rotation Act. The judge ruled it isn’t but should be seen as a “grain” crop.  That means it could be more widely used in a potato rotation even with increased enforcement. I’ll now keep a more open mind to that possibility.